Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Stripes - 1981

"Stripes" - 1981
Dir. by Ivan Reitman - 1 hr. 46 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

There are some great, classic comedy moments in "Stripes," but they're not evenly spaced throughout the film.  Basically, this is what should have been a throwaway comedy (like whatever is currently in the theatre starring Jason Bateman - comedy product) that's elevated by a legitimately great first act and by what the actors involved would end up going on to do.  If it hadn't starred Bill Murray (and Harold Ramis), there's no way "Stripes" would be anything more than just some weird 80s film that keeps popping up on cable every so often.

John (Bill Murray) is a slacker (or maybe a proto-slacker); he's clearly smart, has a beautiful girlfriend, and almost immediately loses both.  His mouth never stops running throughout, but he recognizes that he's mired in mediocrity.  His solution is to convince his best friend, ESL teacher Russell Ziskey (Harold Ramis), to enlist in the U.S. Army with him.  Bill Murray in the Army?  Exactly.  And that's not even getting to other enlistees like Ox (John Candy), the seemingly brain-damaged Cruiser (John Diehl), or the psychedelically-inclined Elmo (Judge Reinhold).

In comedies, a good premise only goes so far.  No one expects the same quality of plot as you would out of a drama; you can have a great comedy that make almost no sense as a story, so long as there's a steady stream of great scenes.  In "Stripes," the story is pretty slim.  Slackers realize their situation, join the Army, go to boot camp, have a misadventure.  There are essentially three sections: pre-Army, boot camp, and misadventure.  Unfortunately, the first section is the best, and the third is the least.  But as much as it's disappointing to watch a promising film fizzle out (in a relative sense, I still enjoyed the film overall), the first act is about as good as you'll find in a dumb comedy.  Both Murray and Ramis' characters are established as well as you'll ever see, and even without explaining each guys' history, it's apparent how they each got into their respective messes.

John is almost always the smartest guy in the room, which is less a promise of success than an admission that he's out of place.  He shouldn't be driving a cab and getting stiffed for fares, but there he is stumbling along.  At the same time, it's not hard to see how he's landed a girlfriend like he had.  By comparison to his position and company that he keeps, he comes off like a genius.  And it's not hard to see why the girls never stay around, once they realize that there's a lack of drive to excel at much of anything beyond having something funny to say about pretty much everything.  When his girlfriend is leaving, John doesn't meaningfully promise that he'll change, but he busts off a handful of all-time great lines (to start, there's the whole Tito Puente thing, and then "You can't leave.  All the plants will die") to cover that he's aware of the inevitability of her departure.  But even prior to that, the entire world seems to pile on John all at once, which leaves him without the energy to do anything about anything.

Once the film hits the boot-camp section, the tone eases up.  There are very good moments here, too, but they're more screwball than the first section, which was about the world ganging up on John.  Instead, we get goofy characters interacting with other goofy characters, which works well.  There are at least three memorable comedy scenes here: the mud-wrestling scene, John and Russell with the cute MPs (the "Aunt Jemima treatment" scene), and the graduation "that's the facts, Jack" scene.  The humor's broader, which isn't a problem because there are still a lot of funny things going on.  But once "Stripes" hits the military RV sequence, the whole thing's about out of steam.  It's one thing to watch John Candy and Bill Murray being shaped into soldiers, but does anyone really want to see them in action, with stuff blowing up and bullets being fired?

On the whole, "Stripes" is still a funny movie.  For a thirty-year old comedy to not only be watchable, but to still hold entertainment value is an accomplishment.  At the time, it might not have seemed like a star-studded cast, but when you've got John Larroquette, Sean Young, and Warren Oates playing relatively minor roles, there's a lot of talent floating around this film.  And it's not a disappointment or anything, I just thought that, like a lot of comedies, it's a bit uneven and doesn't end as strongly as I would have liked.  But that's the difference between an all-time great comedy movie and one that I get a kick out of re-watching every so often.  But having said that, if there's a poster somewhere of the Ox "Teen Beat" cover, I need that on my wall as soon as possible.

3 / 5 - Streaming

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Great Gatsby - 2013

"The Great Gatsby" - 2013
Dir. by Baz Luhrmann - 2 hrs. 23 min.

Official Trailer #2

by Clayton Hollifield

Purists are the worst, most boring kind of people.  If the entire point of a project is to faithfully recreate something in a different format, what's the point, to be a human Xerox machine?  I'm not the least bit interested in period fetishism; I'd much rather see a new take on something that keeps the core of the story true than see someone who's obsessed with making sure that each character was wearing the right socks.  Baz Lurhmann's take on F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" is the best of both worlds, treating the time period as an exotic locale, and using new technology and music to keep from falling into irrelevant reverence of it.  The result is a spectacle, in the best sense of the word.

Usually, this is where I would do a quick plot recap, but there's a very good chance that anyone interested in this movie has already read the book (or has just watched the movie), so let's skip all that this time.

I wasn't joking about what I said about purists, they're the scourge of any creative field.  The idea that any creative work was perfected at a certain point, and the slavish recreation of the previous ideals is a retreat from one's own time, and the refusal to add anything new to one's field is selfish and a waste of time.  The fact that this is a Baz Luhrmann film is significant; it's a upfront statement that you shouldn't hold on to your preconceived ideas about what a Gatsby film should look like.  There are scenes that look like they could have been taken from "300" or "The Spirit" (the driving scenes that show both the big city and the slums that Gatsby and company have to drive through to get to the city).  For one thing, the party scenes are lush, way beyond what most people could imagine they would look like.  They're meant to represent opulence, and the absolute hedonistic pursuit of pleasure, and they actually deliver on that front.  Jay Gatsby himself (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is some kind of mythical figure, and rather than just leaving it at that, his introduction is bizarre and hilarious and overblown.  While Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is lost in reverence at Gatsby's smile and aura, there are literally fireworks going off in the night sky behind Gatsby.  That might be the make-or-break moment in the movie; either you're going to chuckle and then settle in for the ride, or it's just going to be too much for you, and you'll regard the entire thing as silly.

To some degree, the entire story is about that very balance.  It's easy to regard the entire thing as silly, or to think the super-rich, super-handsome Gatsby is just some frivolous orphaned playboy who's superpower is throwing awesome parties (instead of dressing up like a bat and beating the crap out of criminals).  It's easy to think that this is a story about the idle rich, and to dismiss any problems they might have as meaningless when compared to their privilege.  That's an easy, lame, and intellectually lazy approach to take.  "The Great Gatsby" is a love story at it's core, everything else is window-dressing.  It's beautiful, rich window-dressing, but getting caught up in that aspect of the story is admitting that you weren't paying attention, and that you didn't understand the story.  The characters in "Gatsby" who regard him as frivolous and nothing more than a gadfly reveal themselves to be the ones who don't know anything about what's actually going on.  And that's most of everyone; Nick is the only character who seems to have a complete picture of his surroundings, and he's also portrayed as the only one who didn't really have any ulterior motives.  He's living constantly, and contentedly in the shadow of unthinkable wealth, and seems okay with working for his share even when opportunities for short-cuts arise.  Literally every other character is constantly angling and scheming, and none of them are ever happy.

"The Great Gatsby" is also a sad story, which is hammered home in the third act.  I found myself unusually emotionally caught up in the downfall of Gatsby, which is even weirder because I've read the book twice previously.  I knew what was coming, which made the irrepressible optimism of Gatsby harder to bear.  I don't mean to imply that the first two-thirds of "Gatsby" is difficult to get through, because it isn't.  But everything comes together in a very intense way, and the intensity is sustained until the story's conclusion. Early in the film, Nick says that hope is what makes Gatsby different (and better) than everyone else, and that's backed up through his actions.  One of the things that makes "Gatsby" a rock-solid story is that the reputations that people have are earned on-screen through action, rather than just leaving it at "Gatsby's reclusive," and then never really showing that or showing what that means.  But even more meaningfully, as everyone around Gatsby changes and reveals themselves to be less than they'd appeared to be, Gatsby's hope and optimism never fades, which is one source of the emotional heaviness of the final act.

It's difficult to watch anything involved with Fitzgerald without considering his own life as part of the picture.  There's an early scene where Nick dismisses talk of his being a writer, saying that he wasn't ever any good at it.  And there's the ultimate conclusion of the movie, that everyone sucks, the girl turned out not to be worth the trouble, and that the only good guy anybody knows has been driven to alcoholism.  It's a pretty bleak summation.  But there's the alternate view, that Gatsby's hope and love for Daisy fueled him to achieve incredible financial success (albeit through shady means), and to transform his life, and put him in the position to bring moments of pleasure and joy to other people.  The ultimate question that each viewer has to answer for themselves is whether it's the destination or the journey that matters more.  Even though everyone ends up in the same place, "The Great Gatsby" is one hell of a ride.

4 / 5 - Theatre

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

One for the Money - 2012

"One for the Money" - 2012
Dir. by Julie Anne Robinson - 1 hr. 31 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

In the last year or so, there's been three attempts to launch movie franchises based on popular serial book characters (this one, based on Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum, James Patterson's "Alex Cross," and "Parker," based on the Donald Westlake novels), and all three fell flat on their face.  Watching "One for the Money" is the second of the three that I've watched (I've never read the source material), and there are obvious comparisons to "Alex Cross."  Being lumped in with that film isn't exactly a compliment, and I wouldn't pretend for a second that "One for the Money" was a successful movie, but I found it somehow less offensive and awful than "Alex Cross."  At the same time, it didn't feel like anybody was really going for anything here, and the lack of ambition to make a really good movie ended up leaving a bad taste in my mouth.

Stephanie Plum (Katherine Heigl) has lost her job selling lingerie at Macy's, and has been unsuccessfully trying to find a new job for six months when we meet her.  She's kind of unemployable (although there's not much explanation as to why), in debt, divorced, and and about to have her car repo'd.  Stephanie ends up pestering her cousin (who owns a bail bond business) to let her become a "recovery agent," since she's already exhausted every option she can think of.  He relents, and she finds a big-money target that she shares an intimate history from high school with (Joe Morelli, played by Jason O'Mara).  The whole thing is a little more complicated than she thinks, and she ends up trying to untangle a case that the police don't seem to have much interest in pursuing.

To start with the positive, "One for the Money" isn't blatantly stupid.  It's definitely a paint-by-numbers story, and there's a lot of characterization that isn't explored, instead leaving the audience to infer pretty much everything about.  But there's a proud tradition of PG-rated murder mysteries (think "Murder She Wrote," but instead starring a pretty cute actress with awful hair), so I wasn't particularly upset that this wasn't as gritty of a story as it probably ought to have been.  Yeah, there are prostitutes, but they're more like the comic relief than "anything for ten dollars" crackheads.  Yeah, Katherine Heigl gets naked at one point, but it's all either seen through a shower curtain or shot from the collarbone and above.  Yeah, people get shot and die, but it's either largely bloodless or entirely off-screen.  That's all fine.  This movie can probably air on TV with zero edits, and that's not reason for complaint.

Faint praise?  Well, yeah.  "One for the Money" isn't a good movie.  The biggest problem that I had was the familiarity everyone in the entire city seemed to have with one another.  Part of this was that Stephanie almost exclusively interacted with cousins, or with people she had history with, but everyone (and I mean everyone) just seemed way, way too nosy and involved in each others' lives.  I assume that's how Trenton, New Jersey is supposed to be (or at least to feel), but I'm not from New Jersey, and that's not how any community I've ever been a part of has ever behaved.  It just felt weird, and like there was way too much that no one was bothering to explain to me as a viewer, which also made me feel like an outsider.  That sense made it really hard for me to be interested in any of the characters.  There were ham-fisted explanations of Stephanie's dislike for other people (does she really need to explicitly tell her family that she'd already had a husband, and didn't care for it?  Since it's such an awkward way to refer to her history, I assumed that he'd show up at some point, but he never did), but the writing used entirely too much shorthand to fill in people's histories and not enough actual characterization.

There is also the fact that Stephanie ends up buddying up to her target.  The character was unconvincing as a "in it for the money" hard-ass (and has the self-awareness to realize that wasn't working), but Stephanie has a weird need to be liked, even though she seems to be constantly turning her nose up at everything and everyone around her.  Who knows if that is how the source material reads, or if it was intentional, but I was almost immediately not interested in seeing any more movies about this character.  I didn't care if she consummated the sexual tension between her and Joe, I didn't care much if the evil MMA guy got his hands on her.  There simply wasn't any drama, of course she's going put Joe in jail and collect her 50k.  And the comedy didn't work - it's like watching someone crack not particularly funny observational jokes about their family (whom you've never met, and come to think of it, you never met her before either).

I get what everyone involved was going for here: an everywoman hero succeeding in a tough-guy world, preferably with a little style and feminine charm.  But since everything all the way through "One for the Money" is so predictable and rote, there's no way the ending is going to be a downer surprise, either.  I liked Heigl here more than I had before (but I think the only other thing I'd seen her in was the "wet blanket" role in "Knocked Up"), and she cuts a sharp figure in jeans and leather jacket, but I didn't find her fumbling to learn how to recover skips particularly charming, and the character was so poorly written (at least if you want anyone to be sympathetic to her) that it short-circuited any potential emotional connection this type of story requires in order to be successful.  I didn't hate "One for the Money" when I finished watching it, but it just keeps getting worse in retrospect.  Seriously, it can't be that hard to turn a successful book franchise into a successful movie, but this is even worse than "Alex Cross," and probably about as bad as I expect "Parker" to be.  So, film directors, feel free to succeed in this territory.  I'm impatiently awaiting just that.

1 / 5 - Streaming

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Monkeybone - 2001

"Monkeybone" - 2001
Dir. by Henry Selick - 1 hr. 33 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Monkeybone" is better than I remember it being.  It still wasn't an unheralded classic or anything, but it was definitely better than I remembered.  Part of the problem is that media members are super-eager to paint a movie as a "bomb," which is apropos here (a $75 million budget brought in a $7.6 million box office), but can leave a cloud over the film as a creative enterprise.  It can take a long time for the stench of that "bomb" label to clear the room, at which point you can evaluate something like "Monkeybone" outside of its era.

Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) is a cartoonist with a new hit TV show about one of his creations, called "Monkeybone."  There are many merchandising opportunities presenting themselves, but Stu has bigger fish to fry: he's going to propose to his girlfriend, Julie (Bridget Fonda).  On his way home from the launch party, and before can pop the question, they have a car accident caused by toys (tough to explain, but true) that leaves Stu in a coma.  Stu finds himself in Down Town, a carnival-themed waiting room for those in comas, and where people amuse themselves by watching other people's dreams.  He's also confronted by his figment, Monkeybone, which is less fun that it sounds.  Stu must find a way out of Down Town to get back to Julie before his sister, Kimmy (Megan Mullally) pulls the plug on him.

As always, let's start with the good.  Visually, there's a lot of good things going on here (as it should be with a movie about a cartoonist and his cartoon creation).  Director Henry Selick also directed "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Coraline," which should give you an approximation of the set design and character animation (this film blends live-action with stop-motion animation).  The premise of the movie gives ample opportunity to present a bizarre reality, and Selick really takes advantage of this.  If I was going to give one reason for you to check out "Monkeybone," it's that the visuals are fully-realized, and beautifully (and horrifically) stylized.  The character animation on the Monkeybone character (voiced by John Turturro) is fun and lively, and is a bonus for animation aficionados.

Adding to the oddness of "Monkeybone" is how anachronistic it comes off now.  For some reason, I had it pegged as a 90's movie (maybe due to Brendan Fraser's haircut, maybe because of the live action/stop-motion blend), which is probably due to the attitudes presented.  Stu is supposed to be a brooding anti-capitalist (more on that later), and that's very much a 90's attitude towards the relationship between commerce and art.  I'd imagine someone stumbling across "Monkeybone" for the first time now would be befuddled as to why Stu was so uncomfortable with having to glad-hand potential merchandisers, and as to why the character's later embrace of this constitutes a heel-turn.  There's been a drastic change in attitude on this particular topic over the last decade or so, and Stu's attitude is very much from another era.

But this is a very uneven film, as well.  The story itself is pretty straight-forward; it's kind of a one-level video game, where Stu must retrieve an exit pass to get back to Earth.  I felt like the story was a bit too straight-forward; there was a surprising amount of adult-oriented humor, and I'm not sure that blending that with slapstick humor (Chris Kattan is particularly good in his role, in this regard) is going to leave any particular audience segment satisfied with the result.  Or, at least it wasn't entirely successful here.  But I had the biggest problem with the casting, and with Brendan Fraser in particular.  It's not that I don't like Fraser - I generally do.  He's very likable, is a credible leading man, and can also pull off physical humor.  For this particular character, Fraser is all wrong.  I understand the motivation of putting someone like him in "Monkeybone," though.  At that point in film history, no comic-book properties outside of the "Batman" movies were guaranteed money-makers, and the only chance to get a reasonably big budget approved (which was necessary to provide the visual punch and effects) is to put a reasonably big name in the film.

But Fraser is not brooding by nature (or at least hasn't convinced me of that on-screen), and I didn't buy his knee-jerk anti-merchandising attitudes.  So, the traits that were supposed to make him a good guy, I didn't entirely buy into.  And since the evil Stu (Stu's body is taken over by Monkeybone) is less malicious than self-serving, there isn't even a ready-made conflict between Stu and Monkeybone.  The way it's set up is more of a competition than a conflict, which lessens the drama inherent in this scenario.

The upshot here is that "Monkeybone" is an excellent film visually, which isn't enough to cover for the thin story, general weirdness (and this is a very weird movie), and wrong choice for a lead.  In retrospect, it's easy to see why it didn't find an audience; I don't think anyone involved would claim it was their finest work. But that's not to say that "Monkeybone" doesn't have a few charms, like Dave Foley with bleached blond hair, or Rose McGowan dressed like a Halloween sexy cat.  While those charms are fleeting, you can kick back and just enjoy the spectacle of the whole thing, which means that this isn't the hardest not-great film to get through.

2 / 5 - Streaming

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sharknado - 2013

"Sharknado" - 2013
Dir. by Anthony C. Ferrante - 1 hr. 30 min. ?

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"Sharknado" is exactly the kind of film that requires either a billion prefaces, or just a shrug and another pull off of your bottle of beer.  Even the movie's poster says "Enough Said," an admission that there isn't much that anyone's going to say about this movie that will change your first impressions about devoting a couple of hours of your life to this concept.  So let's get past the idea that anything I, or anyone else could possibly say about this concept, and get down to the execution.

Fin (Ian Ziering) owns a beachfront bar by the Santa Monica Pier.  This is relevant because California is about to greet it's very first tornado, which has come through the ocean, driving sharks inland, where they start biting the shit out of everything they can find.  Also, the tornadoes pull sharks out of the ocean and into the twister.  When the Angelinos start acting like rain is a natural disaster, Fin decides that he's got to get his ex, April (Tara Reid), and daughter Claudia (Aubry Peeples) to safety.  April is resistant, because that how bitchy ex-wives are when their ex-husbands suggest anything.  The weather escalates, destroying Fin's bar (and other stuff), so Fin, alcoholic barfly George (John Heard), barmaid Nova (Cassie Scerbo), and his buddy Baz (Jaason Simmons) set out to rescue Fin's estranged family anyways.  Plus, sharks are being flung all over the place, and are eating people whole.

There are two things that don't matter about "Sharknado;" how well the plot holds together, and the quality of the acting.  Also, the originality of any of the characters.  There's more than enough originality in putting sharks and tornadoes together to cover all of that.  And I suppose it goes without saying that this is not, in any aspect, a good movie.  There are two things that really dragged down my enjoyment level; Tara Reid, and the overall lack of polish to the film.  I'll give this to Tara Reid, I doubt she had anything to work with, script-wise.  But if I never saw another knee-jerk bitter ex-wife character in anything, ever, I'd consider that a minor life victory.  Since Reid's character is designed to be an annoying wet blanket, quirks like her unusual scratchy voice and one-note acting made me almost instantly want to see her get eaten by a shark.  Or a gang of sharks.  Or whatever you call a bunch of sharks, if not an actual shark gang.  And as much as I hate to spoil anything for you, you're going to have to put up with her for the entire duration of the film (because Fin and April have children together - yes, one's a doofus and the other is a layer of pancake makeup away from the sort of self-absorption that usually is accompanied with a Depeche Mode cassette tape - and those children mean they must end up together FOR ALL ETERNITY).  There's not even an awareness in the film of how awful and annoying April is; there could have been a lot of fun teased out of trolling the audience by having her repeatedly escaping doom in improbable fashion.

As for the look of the film, it's just crappy.  Everything is ridiculously dark, even when there are beach scenes in broad daylight.  I watched the HD broadcast version of the film, and there was pixelation around a lot of the effects (and not even in a cheesy, so bad it's good way).  Director Anthony C. Ferrante kept trying to pass off footage from the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans as shark-infested flooded Los Angeles neighborhoods.  Obviously, a movie called "Sharknado" isn't going to have the visual polish of something like "The Perfect Storm," so maybe just watch this on the smallest TV you have in your house, and start drinking heavily about fifteen minutes before you start this to fuzz up your vision and smooth out the visual problems within.

Again, none of this matters.  The real question is whether this is entertaining (and you have to also consider that, since this was a TV movie, there's zero chance of any real eye-candy, although there were a lot of lingering shots on bikini bottoms in the first ten minutes).  The answer to that is "kinda."  Everything about this screams stupid, so I can't rightfully be outraged when "Sharknado" delivers on that promise.  My intense dislike of Tara Reid's character (and the character's refusal to fill her destiny and become chum) means that scenes that might be passable for other people were negatives for me.  I did love the sheer 'Murica-ness of Baz's solution to the tornadoes (blow them up, if you were wondering).  But when the poster says "Enough Said," it's probably accurate to say that you might get more enjoyment out of taking five minutes out of your day to just ponder the sheer absurdity of the concept of "Sharknado" than you would get out of taking two hours to actually watch the film (and then enduring your inevitable hangover the next morning).  The premise is the draw, but the execution and delivery of the film fails to add anything meaningful to that premise.

And yet, none of that matters because "Sharknado."

1 / 5 - TV

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Let's Go to Prison - 2006

"Let's Go to Prison" - 2006
Dir. by Bob Odenkirk - 1 hr. 24 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I know that making a ha-ha movie about someone going to prison might be a hard sell to a movie studio, so why even approve it in the first place?  This is exactly the kind of nightmare scenario that you can see coming a mile away: studio gets the first cut, says it's too dark, messes around with it, and some awful compromise version hits the theaters, where it inevitably bombs.  Has a studio ever actually turned a movie around in this manner, taking it from something that feels like it's dead on arrival, messing around with whatever's been turned in so that it's no one's vision (and any pretense of artistic integrity goes out the window), and then it makes $100 million?  Maybe, but all anyone ever hears about (especially with comedies) is that the studio hated, chopped it up, crapped it out, and it lost everyone involved a fortune.  Why not just put out the first version and save the editing time and money?

John Lyshitski (Dax Shepard) is a life-long criminal, put on that path by Judge Nelson Biederman (David Darlow).  When he gets out of jail (again), he decides to get revenge.  Unfortunately, the Judge passed away three days before John gets out.  But fortunately, he learns of the Judge's son, Nelson IV (Will Arnett), and decides that taking revenge on him instead will have to do.  They end up cellies, and John attempts to steer Nelson as wrong as humanly possible, only to have everything continue to come up smelling like roses.

The idea of a prison tutorial is a solid one for a comedy, and there's some good material here.  As expected, there are some pretty broad characters (like Chi McBride's Barry, or the main prison guard/bookie played by David Koechner), but the movie is essentially about an aggressive asshole out of his element (Nelson) being led around by someone who's surprisingly blase about incarceration (John).  Nelson's aggression works well for him, but some of the sharpest observations about the scenario come from John.  There's an exchange where Nelson's trying to figure out exactly what it is that he's supposed to do in the cell, where John explains that when people describe confining situations as like being in prison, this is what they mean.  They're just supposed to sit there and do nothing.

And there are several pretty funny bits along the way.  "Let's Go to Prison" is a pretty uneven comedy, but it's not a bad one.  It's not a substantial movie, and there's the looming feeling of seeing a sketch blown up and stretched out to an hour and a half (that's not a knock on director Bob Odenkirk, of "Mr. Show" fame" so much as a common feeling with uneven comedies), but there some funny people involved, which helps smooth the ride.  Instead of having a romance crammed into a comedy for the sole purpose of having a beautiful young actress on-screen to break up the bro-ing out, the romance here is predicated on a prison rape joke.  It's a clever twist on the usual comedy film trope, if male/male rape can be called clever.  But mainly, for a film that features no real nudity, sex, and mild violence, and still pulled an R-rating, "Let's Go to Prison" doesn't feel like it goes far enough in any regard.

I'm not suggesting that there needed to be more gratuitous whatever included, but there's not enough tension, or surprises, or the sort of ugliness you'd associate with a prison stay to make anything meaningful.  And since Nelson seems to succeed when you'd expect him to fail, the only real tension in the story depends on whether or not you want John to get his revenge on Nelson.  For me, that wasn't enough.  I still laughed, I still enjoyed the main characters, I caught the Tim and Eric cameo, and this reminded me that I need to download at least a couple of Technotronic songs.  But it's not exactly a great movie.  It's not even a good comedy.  It's got a couple of moments, and there might have been a couple more if the studio hadn't monkeyed with the film.  If you're going to watch this, make sure that you've got a minimum of a couple of beers in you first.

2 / 5 - TV

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Hangover Part III - 2013

"The Hangover Part III" - 2013
Dir. by Todd Phillips - 1 hr. 40 min.

Red Band Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

So, there was a third installment, and I finally went to go see it.  "The Hangover Part III" is supposed to be the final film in the series, and as an end-piece, it's not too bad.  It's easily the least of the three films, and runs contrary to the appeal of the first two, but if you need a feel-good ending for these characters, this is as good as you're going to get.

At this point, Alan (Zach Galifianakis) has gone off of his meds once again, to the peril of a giraffe and his father.  A decision is made: Alan needs an intervention (although for what is unclear, as it's his unwillingness to take his prescriptions that's the problem).  Once again, the Wolfpack must reluctantly reform in order to get Alan to New Horizons.  But they are violently waylaid en route by a gangster, Marshall (John Goodman), due to their association with Chow (Ken Jeong).  Doug (Justin Bartha) is held hostage until Alan, Stu (Ed Helms), and Phil (Bradley Cooper) can track down Chow and deliver him to Marshall.

This time around, the basic structure that worked in the first two installments is set aside (a sort of high-stakes game of where is he?).  Instead of the Wolfpack trying to solve a mystery out of friendship and suffering dire consequences in that pursuit, this film is about the actively doing bad things to get Doug free from Marshall, and getting thwarted by the slippery Chow.  The inversion of these characters' motivation doesn't exactly work; instead of seeing people suffer because they're compelled to act in service of their friend's best interests, it becomes difficult to root for any of the characters.  It's no longer a matter of a misunderstanding, or seemingly benign actions escalating into something criminal, it's just guys being coerced into acting as proxies for a gangster.  On some level, a comedy needs to provide someone for the audience to root for - bad things happening to people who deserve it isn't comedy, but vengeance.

The other aspect that doesn't work as well this time around is that the settings don't provide the same sense of menace that Vegas and Bangkok did previously.  Even the return to Vegas here doesn't feel ominous, even though Stu dreads it.  Tijuana, as a setting, provides plenty of opportunities for things to go awry, but the worst that happens is that the Wolfpack has to watch Chow karaoke Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt."  So the visit south of the border feels like a missed opportunity to revisit the travelogue horror shows of the previous two films, which might be the most unique aspect of those films.

Despite those two problems, it's still a pretty funny film.  Chow has a much bigger role here, and it actually works.  I thought the story could have made hanging with Chow much more perilous, but I still enjoyed seeing more of the character.  Cooper, Galifianakis, and Helms all do what you'd expect they will, and I'm always happy to see John Goodman in anything (especially when he's swearing up a storm).  This film wraps things up with a bow (which is promptly untied in a post-credits scene, promising the basis for another installment that I'd still go see, if only this wasn't the last of the series), which isn't strictly necessary.  Nonetheless, if you've gotten through the first two "Hangover" films without walking out, you're probably going to want to see the third, and it's thankfully not a complete letdown.  It does, however, indicate that a fourth film almost surely would be.

2.5 / 5 - Theatre

Monday, July 1, 2013

Oblivion - 2013

"Oblivion" - 2013
Dir. by Joseph Kosinski - 2 hrs. 4 min.

Official Trailer #3

by Clayton Hollifield

One of my cinematic theories is that films, and science fiction films in particular, went awry as soon as special effects (and by that I mean effects that are added after filming - computer stuff) became a widespread tool in filmmakers' toolbox of tricks.  It's such an easy shortcut, certainly easier than writing a compelling story, that many directors simply couldn't help themselves, and when the going got difficult, make something that looks cool to distract from story holes.  This is how we all ended up with decades of action films instead of straight-up science fiction films.  That's not to say that everyone is equally guilty of this, but in the last few years it seems like more and more filmmakers have finally integrated flashy visuals and good science-fiction storytelling again in a way that doesn't sacrifice one for the other.  "Oblivion" is solid example of something that could have just been a series of action pieces, but instead uses effects to tell a quality story.

The circumstances of "Oblivion" are not unique, but still effective.  We're introduced to Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who seem to be the last pair of humans on a radioactive wasteland, formerly known as Earth.  They're "an effective team," tasked with defending giant power generators that suck sea-water into to generate power that will be shipped off-planet; the people who survived the turmoil of 2017 have all relocated to one of Saturn's moons.  Jack flies around Earth (with one of the great sci-fi tropes present - nothing's really left but wrecked landmarks) fending off the Scavs (who kind of look like Predators, but could really be anything after living in radioactivity).  After one of the giant generators explodes, Jack is sent on a mission to investigate an out-going broadcast message that he and Victoria intercept.

"Oblivion" is a story that has some twists and turns to it, so I'm going to lightly tap-dance around all of that, other than to say that I generally liked the story, and there are surprises to be had.  While this might be a "Tom Cruise summer movie," "Oblivion" is not "Mission: Impossible" in a nuclear wasteland.  There are action pieces, frequently involving drones, you shouldn't expect spectacular shoot-outs and giant explosions. The things that do blow up are mostly viewed from a distance (perhaps the best visual example of this involves Earth's moon, which has been partially destroyed, and remains that way in the distance in the sky), as are a lot of the sights.  With so few actors involved, the setting is vitally important, and is frequently given room on-screen to show off.

As for the actors themselves, they all do a good job of seeming slightly off.  I don't mean that in a showy way, but if you've spent five years largely out of circulation, it makes sense that Victoria always seems to be processing information rather than intuitively doing it, and that Jack is kind of beat-up and recklessly looking forward to moving on to whatever's next.  The set design is frequently spectacular (Jack and Victoria's condo in the sky is something to behold, as is Victoria's evening skinny-dip, which really made me wish the film was rated R instead of PG-13); angular, open, cold and devoid of any color that the physical bodies of Cruise and Riseborough provide).  "Oblivion" is a film that you can sink back into your chair, and allow the visuals to overwhelm you.

"Oblivion" is a pleasant throw-back to 1960s and 1970s high-concept science fiction films, but done with modern technology.  It's not a great film, but it's a pretty good one with a pretty good story, and it's executed well.  It wasn't what I was expecting (frankly, I expected a lot of shooting and things blowing up), and that's to the film's credit.  If you can avoid spoilers going in, this is a great Saturday afternoon movie.

3.5 / 5 - Theatre