Saturday, October 10, 2009

In Theaters: "Couples Retreat"

There have been few movies this year that I wanted to like more than Couples Retreat. It’s got a terrific cast (Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, Jean Reno), it sports screenwriting credits by Favreau and Vaughn (with Dana Fox), and it is directed by their longtime producing partner, Peter Billingsley, who was Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Ralphie, for God’s sake!

So it is disappointing indeed to report that, while fitfully funny, Couples Retreat is, for the most part, lazy, sloppily constructed, and crushingly formulaic. It feels like the screenwriters dashed it off in a weekend, realizing that they could get Universal to put up $60 million bucks to finance their vacation in Bora Bora, and ended up filming the first draft, presumably electing to fall back on their gifted cast and their improvisational skills. Not good enough, boys.

It concerns four couples, each with a standard sitcom relationship issue. Dave (Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Akerman) have a comfortable domestic life, but tend to put their kids and work ahead of their relationship. Joey (Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis) are high-school sweethearts who mostly just cheat on each other (I think—as Movieline reported, those explicit infidelities of the trailer are missing entirely from the finished film, leaving their plotline confused and unclear). Shane (Faizon Love) is still smarting from his divorce, and hoping 20-year-old Trudy (Kali Hawk) will help ease the pain. And Jason (Bateman) and Cynthia (Bell) have been so traumatized by their inability to conceive, they’re contemplating divorce.

As a last shot, Jason and Cynthia decide to go to a week-long sun-and-therapy retreat, and talk the others into joining them (playing down the couples counseling and so forth). So wacky hijinks ensue, but maybe, just maybe, everyone will learn valuable lessons about how they can blah blah blah blah blah.

As with last summer’s Year One, this is not a laughless movie; there are funny scenes here and there (the yoga class; Vaughn and the sharks; the home improvement store), though most of the good gags are in the trailer. But considering how many tremendously talented people are on board, Couples Retreat should be far, far funnier than it is. It never builds up any real comic energy, clattering from one free-standing set piece to another and breaking down far too often with lapses into twinkly sentimentality. There’s a way to do this kind of thing well—as Judd Apatow’s comedies (and similar films like Role Models and I Love You, Man) have proven, you can make funny movies about people growing up without slamming between rude comedy and Lifetime movie of the week so hard, you give your audience whiplash.

There are other problems as well—Bateman, playing a rigid, unlikable character, is wasted completely; the kids have that movie disease where they all talk like college-educated adults; in spite of the presence of a female screenwriter, the dialogue of the female scenes is tin-eared and false; and the Guitar Hero climax is just lame. But they all pale next to the climax, which simultaneously wraps up every thread in manners too choppy, too fast, and too easy (and what they do with Love’s storyline is an affront to intelligent screenwriters everywhere).

There is one thing to recommend about Couples Retreat (okay, two, but I should probably keep my Kristen Bell crush in check and not mention how often she ends up in a bikini), and that’s Vince Vaughn. Once again, his crackerjack comic timing comes through in the clutch, and he generates most, if not all, of the movie’s laughs (when Akerman tells him that their new bathroom tile will run a thousand bucks, he replies, “What is it made of, whale tusks?”). In recent films like Four Christmases and Fred Claus, we could lament that he was wasting his comic gifts with subpar material by lesser talents. This time, he’s got nobody to blame but himself.

"Couples Retreat" is now playing in wide release.

In Theaters: "Whip It"

Drew Barrymore’s Whip It is a thoroughly likable and endlessly entertaining picture, and its befuddling box office failure is one of the most depressing movie business stories in recent memory. It’s a warm, funny charmer, and there’s not a bad performance in the damn thing, so I’m not sure why people are staying away in droves. Maybe they think it’s a biopic of Devo. Maybe it’s that inexplicable Juno backlash (hey, it’d explain the similarly peculiar flopping of Jennifer’s Body). Maybe they think it’s just about roller derby, which is kind of like thinking that Hoosiers is just about basketball.

Ellen Page plays Bliss, a 17-year-old girl from Bodeen, Texas who is mostly unhappy and wildly unpopular, a situation not helped by her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and her insistence on entering Bliss into beauty pageants. But one day, while on a shopping trip in nearby Austin, she spots a brigade of tough girls on roller skates, distributing flyers for the local roller derby league. Fascinated, Bliss drags her best friend Pash (Alia Shawkat) to a match and immediately decides that this is what she wants to do. She digs out her Barbie roller skates, lies about her age, and gets a spot on the “Hurl Scouts,” where she’s dubbed “Babe Ruthless,” so as to better fit in with her similarly-monikered teammates, including Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), Bloody Holly (Zoe Bell), Rosa Sparks (Eve), and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore herself).

From its opening titles, which fill every inch of the screen, Whip It is an exuberant, confident debut. This doesn’t feel like a bullshit vanity piece; Barrymore is a skilled, efficient director. The roller derby scenes are genuinely exciting and fun (and, as Roger Ebert noted, Barrymore’s supporting role savvily puts her in the position of not asking anything of her actors that she doesn’t do herself), but their infectious energy carries through the narrative, which has a gleeful momentum even as it is putting its heroine through some pretty familiar situations. Barrymore’s direction (and the script by Shauna Cross, based on her novel) takes moments that are old hat and lets them breathe—watch, for example, the big blow-out fight between Bliss and her folks, and how after Bliss storms out, the camera holds on the parents. It’s just a beat longer than usual, but there’s years of history in that beat.

It also helps to have actors as skillful as Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern to make a moment like that play. Harden’s best scene comes a bit later, actually; I won’t spoil it, but there’s something about the way that she lights a cigarette and tells her daughter “That’s a lot to process” that’s just perfect. Stern’s performance is just wonderful (it’s the kind of turn that makes you wonder why we’re not seeing more of him these days), particularly an announcement to Harden near the film’s climax which is so perfectly played that, yes, I may have misted up a little bit.

Page is an actress who got a bit of a rap, after last year’s underrated Smart People, for “playing every role the same”; anyone who has seen her heartbreaking turn in An American Crime or her scary victim-turned-aggressor in Hard Candy knows better. Her work here is quiet and somewhat understated; early in the picture, she’s so meek that you see how she could easily be a wallflower, but the joy of her “extra-curricular activities” transforms her into a fierce, confident, happy sort. It’s a subtle shift, and Page carries it off with zeal. Among the rest of the solid cast, the biggest surprise is Jimmy Fallon, who is actually funny for once—as the league’s play-by-play man, he oozes oily, unshaven charm. If the picture has a serious flaw, it’s that it is occasionally too pushy in its “grrrrl power” punk-rock aesthetic—but that’s mostly confined to the too-stylized closing credits sequence, and never feels are forced as in, say, the Barrymore-produced Charlie’s Angels movies.

Formulas are funny; when a movie is limply done, then you can all but hear the gears of its formula grinding into place (as in the recent Couples Retreat). But when a movie has wit and enthusiasm, as Whip It does, you go right along with it, either not noticing or not caring that, yes, it will be important when so-and-so shows up to cheer on our heroine at the championship match. It may be a foregone conclusion, but it also feels like the natural progression of events, and besides, we want them to be there to cheer on plucky little Bliss. She deserves it, and we’re cheering for her too.

Sorry, people. I’m not made of wood. Whip It made me unreasonably happy. It’s a wonderful movie.

"Whip It" is currently playing in wide release.

Friday, October 9, 2009

One year at DVD Talk

So one year ago today, November 9th of 2008, I posted my first review, Ballast, on DVD Talk. Frankly, I kinda got into it on a lark; I'd written film criticism off and on, and with a fair degree of seriousness, for years, but I certainly didn't anticipate how writing for the site was going to reorganize my priorities and, well, kind of change my life when I first submitted a sample and pitched myself to them a month or so before that. All I wanted to get out of it was some free DVDs.

But having a forum for my thoughts on film (and TV, and music, and stand-up, and whatever) quickly became pretty addictive, and the more I wrote, the better I wanted to be. I found myself plunging back into the works of Kael and Ebert, as well as the sharp and informed reviews of many of my colleagues at the site; they made me work harder, try harder, rework a phrase here, find a better reference there. Somewhere around the time that John Sinnott, my excellent editor, got me a press pass to the Tribeca Film Festival, I got my first taste of being a real film writer, and I wanted more. I started this blog, cranked up my productivity, and started working harder.

So thanks to everyone there who supports me, everyone here and there who reads me, my wife who never stops believing in me, and my friends, for frequently tagging along and letting me steal from our post-movie conversations.

On DVD: "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"

Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is a movie that people of my age tend to hold an unwavering affection for; smart, funny, imaginative, and a little creepy, it’s a picture that holds up to the repeat viewing that any decent family film is invariably subjected to. Personally, I had more than one occasion where I watched it clear through, shrugged, hit rewind, and started it again (I’ll hasten to add that, at ten years old, my video library hadn’t quite bulked up yet). When you’re introduced to a film this beloved at that age, you don’t think about how it came to be, or examine it with much of a critical eye. It just is, a thing that exists, and it’s marvelous.

But it is a film that I’ve revisited through the years, most recently its sleek new Blu-ray release, and as the critical eye develops, the movie’s little flaws begin to show. This is not unusual; even the most beloved films can start to crack if you get old and grouchy and jaded enough. But none of my minor nitpicks—which I’ll get to presently—can negate the considerable warmth and magic of this particular picture.

The story, as we all must know by now, concerns one Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), a devastatingly poor slum kid who lives with his mother and his four bed-ridden grandparents. At night, his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) tells him stories of the enigmatic, eccentric “candy man,” Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder), who shut down his factory years before due to crippling corporate espionage. Then one day, mysteriously, the factory started turning out chocolate and candies again, even though, they whisper, “no one goes in… and no one comes out!”

But then news breaks that some will go in. Wonka has put out five “golden tickets” in Wonka bars, and the five lucky recipients (and one relative of each) will be allowed to come in to the Wonka factory for a tour, which will conclude with the gift of a lifetime supply of chocolate. The world goes bonkers. The first four winners hail from all over the world, but all are varying degrees of spoiled brat; poor Charlie doesn’t seem to stand a chance, but then (in a wonderful sequence) he finds some money under a storm grate, buys two Wonka bars, and discovers that hard-sought flash of gold underneath.

Some of the first-act comic vignettes are desperately unfunny; the worldwide search for the tickets yields a couple of chuckles (and seems to predict the Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle Me Elmo bloodbaths of later years), but the filmmakers appear to be biding their time, and repeat viewers will be impatient for the movie to get to the damned factory already. The Oompa-loompas have become fairly beloved figures in pop culture, so we tend to forget the fact that they are, for all intents and purposes, slaves (a fact made much clearer by the original descriptions and illustrations in Roald Dahl’s novel); the implications leave quite a few unanswered questions. And the music is hit and miss; as joyful as “(I’ve Got a) Golden Ticket” is, and as memorable (for better or worse) as “Oompa Loompa, Doompa-Dee-Do” may be, is there anyone who couldn’t do without the treacly “Cheer Up, Charlie”?

Those are the sum total of my critiques; this more critically-minded viewing yielded, for this writer, more clues as to what the picture does right. First and foremost, I’d never really appreciated the tremendous charisma of Ostrum, and how vitally important our sympathy for him was to the film overall. But his is a beautifully modulated piece of work, sweet without being cloying, and he shows admirable restraint in his delivery of potentially maudlin lines like “You know, I’ll bet those golden tickets make the chocolate taste terrible.” He’s surrounded by a gallery of immortal characters; shrieking rich girl Veruca Salt (“Daddy, I want an Ooompa-loompa now!”), gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde, crass little Mike Teeveee. But the gifted character actors playing their parents have never really gotten their due; the great Roy Kinnear (veteran of countless Richard Lester pictures) is perfectly cast as the smugly put-upon Mr. Salt, while Dodo Denney exhibits near-perfect comic timing as Mrs. Teevee.

But from his entrance (nearly 45 minutes in), Gene Wilder owns the picture; it is his most iconic role (yes, even more than young Dr. Frankenstein), a performance of real depth and genuine comic invention. He’s funny on several levels (his dryly half-hearted attempts to stop the bad kids from meeting their doom; the wide-eyed enthusiasm of his line, “the suspense is terrible… I hope it’ll last”; his good-natured assurance, “I think that furnace is only lit every other day, so they have a good sporting chance, haven't they?”), and his timing is so good, he can even sell a third-rate joke like throwing a shoe into a candy mix because it “gives it a little kick.” But there’s nuance to his work; that trippy, terrifying boat ride is made infinitely creepier by his sinister line readings, and when he takes a dark turn and unleashes on Charlie and Grandpa Joe at the journey’s end, Wilder doesn’t pull any punches. It is a fabulous turn, and a strong anchor for this uncommonly rich and satisfying family film.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is a modern classic, and deservedly so; its clever construction, fairy tale sense of fair play, and wicked humor not only stand the test of time, but stand up to multiple viewings. The hipsters can have Tim Burton’s blasphemous 2005 remake; this one is the genuine article.

"Willy Wonka" made its Blu-ray debut on Tuesday, October 6th.

Today's New in Theaters- 10/9/09

Couples Retreat: I've been looking forward to this one for a while--it's a cast full of people I like and respect (Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, etc.) But boy, the reviews so far have just been deadly. So we'll see if it's as good as it should be, as bad as it's supposed to be, or somewhere in between.

Good Hair: A comic doc from the very funny Chris Rock, examining the big business of black hair. Ebert gives it a thumbs-up.

Trucker: It's not a remarkably original story, and it unfolds in fairly predictable beats. But Michelle Monaghan is awfully good, and the low-key, lived in atmostphere is strong.

An Education: Also high on my too-see list is Lone Scherfig's film of Lynn Barber's memoir, adapted for the screen by the great Nick Hornby (the novelist behind High Fidelity and About a Boy, among others). It's only opening on three screens in NY and LA, but early reviews have been rhapsodic.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

In Theaters: "Trucker"

James Mottern’s Trucker begins with Michelle Monaghan having a deep, hard orgasm. That’s one way to get people’s attention, I guess. Satisfied, she climbs off the young man, puts on her clothes, blows off the gentleman’s attempts to engage further with her, marches out of his motel room and climbs into her big rig. It’s a blunt scene, quietly effective, telling us much of what we need to know about her character, Diane Ford, a long-haul trucker.

A few years ago, Diane walked out on another man, Leonard (Benjamin Bratt), and their infant son, Peter. Now, Leonard is hospitalized with cancer, and Peter needs somewhere to go while his stepmom (Joey Lauren Adams) deals with a family emergency. Diane is stubborn and tough, and she makes no apologies for who she is (“Not everybody’s cut out to be like everyone else,” she notes), but being genuinely needed causes her to question the way she’s lived her life, and to perhaps attempt a connection with her boy (Jimmy Bennett).

In its broad strokes and overall construction, it isn’t a stunningly original story; hell, change Diane’s sex and toss in some arm wrestling and you’ve got Over the Top. But Trucker works anyway, thanks to several potent performances and the picture’s low-key, easygoing sense of tone and style. Mottram’s confessed Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore influence is clear and pronounced (it shares not only that film’s mother-son dynamic but its comfort in track houses and roadside motels); it is also reminiscent of more recent portraits of everyday folks living small-town lives, in films like Sling Blade, Eye of God, and Monster’s Ball. As those films did, Trucker avoids the condescending, semi-tragic approach that cosmopolitan writers and directors tend to attach to ordinary lives—the film is matter-of-fact in its view of Diane and her situation, and the natural, unforced dialogue and scene construction doesn’t push for effects.

The picture’s delicate mood is enhanced by Mychael Danna’s atmospheric, ambient score and the sharp, expansive cinematography by Lawrence Sher—the film never feels walled-off or closed-in, a common pitfall of this type of story. Monaghan, who never quite found a role that properly capitalized on her explosive breakthrough in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang four years back, is strong in the lead; to be frank, I wasn’t quite sure if she could pull the role off physically (not to sound sexist, but good Lord is she a tiny wisp of a thing), but the force of her personality is plenty convincing. Her finest scene comes around the halfway mark (an open, honest conversation with Peter about why she left when she did), but many of her best moments are sans dialogue—she does wounded and steely quite well, and Mottram is wise to frequently let his camera hold on her face and study her fleeting reactions.

The plutonic relationship between Diane and her married buddy Runner (Nathan Fillion) provides occasional drama but mostly works as a vehicle for Fillion’s dry comic wit and easygoing charm; he and Monaghan are quite good together, effortlessly conveying why these two like each other, why they’re tempted to act on it, and why they know they can’t. Bennett (seen recently in Orphan and Shorts) is a skilful young actor, though Bratt and Adams don’t get much to do in support.

As it comes to close, the film can’t quite manage to pull itself together to a satisfying conclusion; it tries, but the eleventh-hour crisis climax feels forced and a little out of left field. (That said, the closing scene is awfully good.) Overall, Trucker’s basic beats are familiar and there’s little in it we haven’t seen before. But it’s well-constructed and sensitively played, particularly by its tough-as-nails heroine.

"Trucker" opens Friday, October 9 in limited release.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

On DVD: "Adoration"

Atom Egoyan can be a tough filmmaker to get your head around. His 2008 film Adoration grazes some weighty topics—terrorism, xenophobia, exploitation of tragedy—but when you boil it down, it’s about what all of his films are about: the precarious nature of the truth, and the tricky mining of the past in an arguably vein attempt to attain said truth.

In Adoration, Egoyan again tells his story in the fractured, circular style that has become his signature (his previous films include Exotica, Ararat, and his masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter). Nothing is definite; characters and incidents are glimpsed instead of explained; important scenes are spread out over the course of an entire narrative, gradually revealing dribbles of additional information; long-held secrets are held in confidence until the last possible moment. His methodology can, frankly, be a little maddening.

The mere nature of his storytelling makes summarizing his screenplays next to impossible; of this one, I will say that it involves a young student (Devon Bostick) who has lived with his uncle (Scott Speedman, in a serious actor beard) since the death of his parents (Rachel Blanchard and Noam Jenkins). One day, he tells his French class a story about how his father tried to use his mother to smuggle an explosive device onto a transcontinental flight. It is not surprising that the story has ramifications; what is unexpected is how far they reach, up to and including the boy’s teacher (Arsinee Khanjian).

More than that I cannot divulge. Egoyan is not a filmmaker for all tastes; at times, his hide-and-seek style can be downright exasperating, and the question must be asked of his work that is asked of anyone working with fractured timelines and circular storytelling: is it a gimmick? Is this a story that would be as compelling if told straightforward, without all the structural trickery?

The answer, I believe, is yes. Egoyan’s motives may not always be clear, but he is never purposefully confusing—he demands patience, sure, but does not take that patience for granted. Even when we’re not sure exactly where we are, we’re certain that we’re in the hands of a skilled storyteller, and the picture works on a moment-to-moment basis; from its opening frames, the film is intriguing and atmospheric. Much of this is due to Paul Sarossy’s excellent cinematography and yet another skilful Mychael Danna score, but Egoyan’s a sure hand at sustaining mystery.

Some of his devices don’t land. Several scenes involving the young man’s interactions with friends and adults in web chat rooms don’t fit at all; they play awkward and heavy-handedly, becoming easy vehicles for armchair didacticism. And as well-written as the film is (mostly), the elliptical dialogue is sometimes hard to engage with.

Performances are mostly strong. Rachel Blanchard (surprisingly good in Egoyam’s earlier Where the Truth Lies) makes the most of her limited screen time. Neither Speedman nor Bostick is terribly showy, which is a good choice; they’re most effective, though Bostick is sometimes a little too much of a blank slate (some of his line readings are too flat). Khanjian has the trickiest role of all, revealing everything and nothing simultaneously, and she plays it masterfully.

Adoration has its share of problems, but Atom Egoyan remains one of our most fascinating, challenging directors. His storytelling quirks and stylistic indulgences may irritate less patient viewers, but those who turn themselves over to this film may find themselves richly rewarded.

"Adoration" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, October 13th.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

On DVD: "Nick Swardson: Seriously, Who Farted?"

There’s something that bothers me about Nick Swardson, in spite of his considerable likability, and after watching the DVD of his new Comedy Central special Nick Swardson: Seriously, Who Farted?, I think I’ve figured it out: he’s playing down to us. On the surface, the affable comic seems to content to coast on relatable subject matter and frat boy charm—kind of a funnier Dane Cook (not that that’s terribly hard to be). But there’s more happening under that; in the best moments of his hilarious 2007 album Party, there’s a sense that he’s a little ahead of his audience, that he might be treading that fine line between being a boozy aimless schmuck, and playing a parody of one. The problem with pulling off an act like that is pleasing your audience: if the people who respond to you end up being the kind of guy you’re playing in your act, you might have to dial back the satire and just kind of be that guy.

The new special, which premieres (in a shortened form) on Comedy Central a few days prior to the DVD release, is therefore pitched to that demo, and as a result, it isn’t nearly as smart or nuanced as the 2007 record (in all fairness, I could just be giving him too much credit; after all, his long association with the worst output of Adam Sandler’s company—including Grandma’s Boy and The Benchwarmers, both of which he co-wrote—don’t exactly indicate a hidden depth of intellectualism). The topics are all fairly standard—fast food, drinking, “drunk chicks,” dating, pot, and video games—and he doesn’t tackle exactly wring a flurry of new insights out of them. He’s a fierce defender of mindless blockbuster movies (lots of love for Transformers), and most of his cultural references are to video games.

That’s not to say there aren’t laughs here—there are. Swardson’s material may not always be stellar, but his timing is impeccable, and he knows how to work a crowd. His best moments come not in the Cookian “observational humor,” but in his more personal moments of goofball storytelling. The tale of his first “massage” is a riot, particularly his description of the somewhat elderly masseuse (the massage is excellent, he says, “obviously—she’s been doing it for a thousand years”). The story of his Vegas trip and encounter with a high-fiving monkey is similarly amusing. And he does a very funny bit imagining a world where everyone becomes the first thing they ever wanted to be when they grew up (“Ninjas running around, princesses… quarterbacks throwing footballs to pirates…”).

But just when he gets a good story going, the show turns into a fan club meeting, with inside jokes and references to his other projects. At one point, he gets very serious and says, “I wanna take the time to thank everybody for supporting the movie Grandma’s Boy,” and the crowd goes insane, and then he proceeds to tell ten minutes worth of stories about the making of that opus. That chunk of the special is strictly for all of you Grandma’s Boy “supporters,” and it’s not stand-up comedy, it’s audio commentary. In moments like that, good will goes out the door. He’s doing the kind of lazy, self-congratulatory material that made his mentor, Adam Sandler so rich—playing dumb, as he’s perhaps learned, makes smart business.

On second thought, I’m probably taking the whole thing too damned seriously; I mean, after all, the special is titled Seriously, Who Farted?, so it’s probably not the place to look for high-minded wit. But Swardson, as a comic personality, is funnier than his middling material; the Grandma’s Boy fans he pays earnest tribute to will probably eat this up, but everyone else will want to stick with a rental.

"Nick Swardson: Seriously, Who Farted?" premieres on Comedy Central Sunday, October 11th. The accompanying DVD and CD hit stores on Tuesday, October 13th.

Monday, October 5, 2009

On DVD: "Year One"

Maybe it’s just a matter of expectations. When Year One opened in June of 2009, it looked to be the can’t-miss comedy of the summer. The current King Midas of comedy, Judd Apatow, was producing for his idol, co-writer/director Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, Vacation). Ramis wrote the screenplay with Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, staff writers for the U.S. version of The Office. The picture was fronted by Jack Black and Michael Cera, with an able supporting cast, including David Cross, Hank Azaria, Christopher “McLovin’” Mintz-Plasse, Paul Rudd, and Oliver Platt. The trailer was killer. The concept (though clearly derivative of Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part 1) was solid. And then it came out, and everyone hated it.

Reviews ranged from mildly disappointed to openly hostile (it sits at 16% at Rotten Tomatoes, and both of the reviews on this site were pretty brutal) and box office was middling; it opened just shy of $20 million, but nosedived to barely $6 million in weekend two, as toxic word of mouth spread. It quickly disappeared from view, and now arrives quietly on DVD and Blu-ray. And here’s the thing: It’s not that bad.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that great either. A crew of modern comic all-stars like this one should, certainly, be able to put together a picture that is more consistently funny than this one, which runs roughshod over Biblical stories and caveman epics without managing to sustain much in the way of comic ingenuity. Black and Cera play a pair of hunter-gatherers (Black’s Zed is a terrible hunter, Cera’s Oh is a frustrated, fussy gatherer) in a small village. Zed is cast out of the village after eating the forbidden fruit (“it tastes knowledge-y,” he notes), and Oh follows, more out of boredom than anything else. The duo then embarks on a journey that crosses paths with Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, and their dream girls from the village (June Diane Raphael and Juno Temple), who have been sold to slavery and are on their way to the sinful city of Sodom (lots and lots of sodomy jokes ensue).

Year One is wildly hit and miss, but it is not without laughs (fitful though they may be). Cain and Abel are played by Cross and Rudd; their first scene (Rudd’s only one) is pretty funny, and Cross’s Cain keeps turning up, sometimes to help out Zed and Oh, more often to sell them out. The pair stumbles upon Abraham (Azaria) at the moment he is about to sacrifice Isaac (Mintz-Plasse) in a burnt offering; challenged for attempting to murder his son, he protests, “We were playing a game. It’s called burny burny, cut cut.” One of the funniest scenes follows soon after, as Abraham explains circumcision. Cera protests, “Couldn’t we pierce our ears or something?” “No, no, no, trust me,” Azaria assures him. “This’ll be a very sleek look. It’s gonna catch on.”

Where the picture fails to amuse, and badly, is in its attempts at gross-out humor. An early dip into the murky waters of the scatological is a stomach-churning misfire, and the film’s other shots at gross-out humor fail just as badly; Ramis shoots this stuff too close up, and lets it go on for too long. This kind of thing is better suggested than explicitly shown—if it must be done at all. In his own directorial efforts, Apatow wisely steers mostly clear of this kind of toilet humor, though that’s a message he could push harder on the filmmakers he produces for; here (as in the disappointing Stepbrothers), he forgets that just because you can get away with cheap middle-school vulgarity, doesn’t mean you necessarily should.

Much of that raunchiness comes courtesy of the repellant character played by Oliver Platt, an actor who is frequently very funny (as in Ramis’ previous film, the underrated Ice Harvest), but not here. Playing a ribald, cross-dressing high priest decked out in eye make-up and more body hair than Robin Williams, he overplays to a point of distraction. Black and Cera are basically playing their go-to stock types, but they manage to wring a few more laughs out of them; Cera’s shy, stuttery delivery may have grown tiresome to some, but not this viewer, and while Black’s wild-man schtick has perhaps run its course, his high-energy performance helps to keep things moving along. Even he can’t sell the “feel good” ending, however, which lands with a thud and pulls the picture past a 90-minute mark that it shouldn’t have breached.

Director Harold Ramis and producer Judd Apatow each have several great comedies to their names; make no mistake, Year One ain’t one of ‘em. But it certainly surpasses its noxious reputation, and may very well provide a few chuckles on a hung-over Sunday afternoon.

"Year One" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, October 6th.

On DVD: "How I Met Your Mother: Season 4"

How I Met Your Mother premiered on CBS in the fall of 2005 as a combination of the high and low concept: an occasionally complicated time-jumping storyline married with a traditional, multi-camera laugh-track sitcom. The series (and many episodes) begin with middle-aged Ted (never seen, but voiced by Bob Saget—involved, for once, in a long-running series that doesn’t stink) telling his teenage daughter and son the story of how he met their mother. We then flash back to the mid-2000s (though, throughout its run, the series has dipped as far back as the mid 90s and well into the future), where young Ted (Josh Radnor) lives in New York with his best friend Marshall (Jason Segal), Marshall's girlfriend (and later wife) Lily (Alyson Hannigan), and smarmy ladies' man Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), and has an on-again, off-again relationship with Robyn (Cobie Smulders).

The Ted-Robyn relationship provided much of the ongoing story arc fodder for the first three seasons; season one spent most of its time on a Ross-and-Rachel-style build-up, while season two put them together, mined their romantic relationship, and then split them up. Season three kept them that way (mostly), while embarking Ted on a romance with Stella (guest star—and Scrubs regular—Sarah Chalke) that provides that year with a cliffhanger—will she accept Ted’s marriage proposal?

Well, spoiler alert, she does (relax, it’s the first episode of the season). But this stroke of happiness for our Ted is short-lived; their rushed wedding, in episode five, ends with Stella leaving Ted at the altar following a reconciliation with her ex (beautifully played by Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones). Bruised and a little battered, Ted spends the remainder of the season mostly playing the field; this year’s will-they-or-won’t-they involves not Robin and Ted, but Robin and Barney, who slept together at the end of season three, leading to—shockingly and alarmingly—a genuine flush of romantic feelings by the notorious womanizer.

By this point in its run, How I Met Your Mother has settled into a comfortable routine, and I mean that in a good way; the show is in the character-comedy mold of Seinfeld and Friends (its two clearest influences), and like those shows, the situations get funnier, the more familiar we are with the characters. The series’ ingenious structure and inventive narrative tricks also continue to entertain; the hopscotching timelines of the “Three Days of Snow” and “The Front Porch” episodes are outstanding, while the clever flashbacks of “Sorry, Bro” build to some big laughs. Other standout episodes include “I Heart NJ,” which perfectly encapsulates the love/hate relationship between island-dwelling New Yorkers and commuters from the Garden State; “The Best Burger in New York,” a fine portrait of New York foodie-ism (and how to best utilize a Regis Philbin guest shot); and “The Stinsons,” which reveals one of Barney’s more peculiar secrets.

But the season’s finest episode, without question, is “Murtaugh,” centered on Ted’s “Murtaugh List”—i.e., a list of things that would fall under Danny Glover’s Lethal Weapon catchphrase, “I’m getting too old for this shit” (the replacement of “shit” with “stuff” in the story that aged Ted is telling his children is a particularly nice touch). It’s a funny idea (and dovetails nicely with the season-long running theme of aging; there’s 30th birthdays all around this season), well-developed, and the episode’s B-plot includes an homage to Teen Wolf, so what else could you ask for?

Radnor and Smulders, originally the show’s weaker links, continue to develop into engaging, charismatic comic actors. Hannigan and Segal’s chemistry remains one of the show’s biggest assets, though she is guilty of occasional overacting, and Segal sometimes seems underutilized (at least when compared to his work on Freaks and Geeks and in films like I Love You, Man and Forgetting Sarah Marshall). But Harris’ Barney Stinson remains the show’s comic gold mine, and the skilled thespian uses the season-long Robin crush to lend some additional pathos to the character (without ever seeming to pander for sympathy). His desperation reaches a fever pitch in the wonderful “Benefits” episode, in which new roommates Ted and Robin end up sleeping together to end domestic arguments, leading jealous Barney to start dropping by with groceries and pitching in on household chores—all the better to keep tempers smooth and to keep the “friends” out of each other’s pants.

Only two real criticisms can be lobbed at the fourth season. First, the show’s intrusive laugh track continues to distract; with every other quality TV comedy trusting its viewers to know when to laugh, How I Met Your Mother’s post-recorded yukking makes the show feel like a square relic of a bygone era, which doesn’t jibe at all with its narrative gimmickry or its occasionally edgy subject matter. And secondly, the simultaneous off-screen pregnancies of Hannigan and Smulders are poorly masked, to a point of preoccupation—I’ve seen this kind of thing done reasonably skillfully (as on The Cosby Show), but the steady increase of huge purses and peasant blouses are, to be charitable, less than convincing.

But How I Met Your Mother remains one of the most consistently, reliably funny series on network television. Season four finds the show continuing in fine form, taking its characters in interesting new directions and providing its talented cast with a prime showcase for their crackerjack comic skills. In its first year, I wasn’t sure if this was a show that could keep up its ingenious premise without getting bogged down in easy formula, but in year four, How I Met Your Mother shows no signs of slowing down.

"How I Met Your Mother: Season 4" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

On DVD: "A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa"

For those of us who grew up watching the original Muppet Show and the first three, Jim Henson-controlled Muppet movies, spring 2008 brought a piece of long-awaited good news. Following the unexpectedly puppet-ccentric R-rated comedy hit Forgetting Sarah Marshall, that film’s writer and star Jason Segal and its director, Nichols Stoller, announced that they had signed to create the next Muppet feature film. Lest enthusiasts fear a Meet the Feebles-style corrupting of the characters, Segal insists it will be “incredibly old fashioned,” which this hopeful viewer reads as, still appropriate for family audiences, but imbued with the sly humor that made the Muppets so many fans outside of their target audience.

The fact of the matter is, since Henson’s untimely death in 1990, the tone and style of the Muppet movies and TV shows have shifted, and not terribly subtly. Once the Henson studio began collaborating with Disney in early 1990s, the Muppet theatrical films, TV movies, and specials were geared towards Disney’s audience of children, first and foremost, and if the parents enjoyed them too, then that was fine. But the inside showbiz jokes and satirical jabs were mostly gone, and the genuine heart of the early Muppet pictures was replaced by syrupy, vanilla formula.

A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa, an hour-long holiday special that aired on ABC in late 2008, falls mostly into this realm; it has its moments, but is mostly aimed squarely at young kids, without much to keep anyone else interested. The special begins with Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, and Pepe the King Prawn (he’s a new character, fellow old-timers) in line at the post office on Christmas Eve, dropping off cards and a letter to Santa from their neighbor girl, Claire (Madison Pettis). They wander into the sorting room, where Jesse L. Martin leads them in a cringe-inducing song about the post office. They have a mishap in the sorters and are tossed out; when they get back to their apartment building (which appears to be inhabited solely by Muppets and one family; was this a rent-control situation?), they discover that in the mess, they ended up in possession of three letters to Santa, including Claire’s. (If you ask me, that’s the risk Claire was running by not mailing the damn thing until Christmas Eve, but I digress.) The post office is already closed, so the rest of the special concerns their attempts to get the letters to the North Pole.

The show’s comic bits are hit and miss—Sam the Eagle’s pop-in is very funny, perhaps the comic highlight, and there’s a wonderful bit with Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker (and Beaker’s new girlfriend, played by Petra Nemcova). Nathan Lane, just about as game an actor as the Muppet folks could hope for, gets some laughs with his scenes as a suspicious TSA inspector, and Sopranos co-stars Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa make a welcome appearance as (surprise) gangsters. However, neither Uma Thurman nor Whoopi Goldberg get much to do, and Jane Krakowski’s comparatively large supporting role as Claire’s mom makes no use of either her comic gifts or her killer pipes.

As with all of the Muppet projects since Henson’s passing, the new voices take some getting used to; Steve Whitmire has been voicing Kermit for almost twenty years now, and it still sometimes sounds off, but nowhere near as wrong as the puppeteers doing Scooter and Janice. There are occasional dopey music cues (the use of a circus trombone after a couple of the bad jokes is a poor choice), and the songs by Paul Williams (he also penned the memorable tunes of The Muppet Movie and the not-quite-so memorable numbers in The Muppet Christmas Carol) are mostly bland and forgettable. However, the show does manage to work its way to a sweet, warm ending that forgives some (though not all) of the lapses that preceded it.

Very young children, who are presumably the audience for A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa, should enjoy it just fine; the Muppets are cute, the jokes are easy, and it has plenty of Christmas cheer. But older viewers, longing for the glory days of Muppet entertainment, won’t find much of that here.

"A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa" is currently available on DVD.