Monthly Archives: September 2010

Easy A (2010)

Usually when I think “teen comedy” I think lowest common denominator and a pitch straight down the middle of the plate. Will there be fart jokes? Probably. Will the climax taken place at the prom? Absolutely. Does Easy A do either? Not a chance. This is the sort of teen comedy that would have greatly appealed to me back in my own days of high school institutional education.

Olive (Emma Stone) is a high school senior that gets good grades, behaves well, and spends her weekends hopping around her bedroom and singing a song she can’t get out of her brain. She’s not into parties or idiots or anything remotely dangerous. Then her world turns upside down when she fibs about losing her virginity. Suddenly Olive is branded as the school’s hussy. Inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous character, Olive decides to embrace the rumors, accessorizing her wardrobe with plenty of scarlet “A”s along the corseted bust line. Olive’s gay friend asks her for a huge favor: he wants to use her fake notoriety to lose his virginity. The two will attend a party, find a room, and dramatically interpret animated sex. It works like a charm. Her pal is given a free pass, some extra popularity, and it isn’t long before other downtrodden high school rejects seek a similar deal. Outraged at Olive’s lack of shame is Marianne (Amanda Bynes), the school?s busybody and leader of a vocal Christian abstinence program. She doesn’t know whether she wants to save Olive or banish her.

All hail the coming of Emma Stone, comedy goddess and future heartbreaker. Easy A is a fantastic showcase of the many strengths of this irresistible actress. After several supporting roles in films like Superbad and The House Bunny, this is the first opportunity for Stone to have a film where she gets to be the lead, and trust me folks, this won?t be the last one. Stone has a great way of becoming instantly empathetic and, much like the film, being brainy and playfully risqué at the same time. Watching the success of Stone is like watching the road not taken by Lindsay Lohan (be careful whose advice you take, Emma). Stone makes her good times seem effortless, like she really is having a blast playing up her bad girl image. Her facial expressions and sarcastic, know-it-all line readings help push her comedic range even further, and yet she remains completely empathetic the entire time. Stone is the kind of girl that other girls would want to hang out with and guys would crush on. It is impossible to not love this actress, and she makes Easy A easily enjoyable and downright effervescent at times.

The rest of the cast is having just as much fun with the material as Stone. Chief among them are Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive’s hyper-literate parents. They may seem like they stepped off the train from a Diablo Cody movie at first, but you will quickly get used to their glib rapid-fire repartee. Some might dismiss them as kooks. Thomas Haden Church (Sideways) tries to make the glamorous movie idea of the Hip Teacher into a droll square and succeeds admirably. There’s even Lisa Kudrow (TV’s Friends) as a guidance counselor and Malcolm McDowell (Halloween) as a blasé principal (“This is public school. If I can keep the girls off the pole and the boys off the pipe, I get a bonus”). Then there’s Bynes (Hairspray, She’s the Man) in what was billed as her final film performance before hastily retiring from acting, and then following in the footsteps of other famous retirees like Michael Jordan, Stephen King, Jay-Z, and Brett Farve, and hastily un-retired. She has her cutesy, dimple-faced shtick she cling to, but what happened to her? Her face looks very swollen, like she had an allergic reaction on every day of shooting. It looks like someone inflated her head with the plot to turn her into a Macy’s Day balloon. I started to get concerned for Bynes by the end.

While Stone is the number one, two, and three reasons for seeing this movie, Easy A doesn’t let down her efforts. This is a teen comedy that might just be light years ahead of the pack. There are jokes guaranteed to go over the heads of a majority of audience members, from wisecracks about Sylvia Plath to French wordplay to the Kinsey scale. You’re not going to find any of that stuff in your typically brain-dead Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle (is it just pathetic to keep holding onto a 10-year-old anti-FPJ grudge? The answer is, “No!”). Though I died a little inside when the movie resorts to explaining the plot of The Scarlet Letter to Joe Public; however, this intellectual Cliff Notes salve was saved by Stone bemoaning the idiotic 1995 Demi Moore film that takes some of the sharpest deviations I’ve ever seen from a classic literary adaptation (“If I have to grade one more paper talking about Hester Prynne taking baths all the time?”). The dialogue is routinely snappy and occasionally barbed, which is a bit of a surprise. It’s witty, a little cheeky, but it doesn’t go over the line or play for the easy gross-out gag. It?s a well-constructed, well-executed teen comedy that has a playful zing, a facetious tone that celebrates literature and makes being smart sexy.

While sex is at the forefront of the plot, the film does not treat the serious subject matter with flippancy. There’s some heavy stuff about what it means to sell out your ideals, prostituting yourself in more ways than the obvious. Olive begins her crusade as a means of taking ownership of her reputation and as an amusing character to play. But then as she dives ahead, accepting gift cards for her imaginary yet cred-boosting favors, the bloom of idealism dims and the meaning of her crusade become murky. What point is she trying to prove, exactly? In the end, is there a sharp difference between being a prostitute and being a “prostitute”? How big of a distance can irony give you? Easy A may have its fun when it comes time to doing the deed (I was howling with laughter about Olive chastising her first “client” about his comment on the aroma of sexual intercourse), but this is a teen movie ready to accept the consequences of its actions with a clear and level head.

Not everything hums with precision. Easy A can be faulted for being too reverential and referential to 1980s teen comedies. Its ambition to be a modern-day member of this group is a bit too in-your-face. The abstinent Christian opposition feels too broadly drawn and setups for cheap shots and some downright mean punchlines. This movie is better than stooping to tin-eared caricature. The relationship between Olive and her best friend (Alyson Michalka) is vastly underdeveloped. The emergence of a Herpes outbreak also seems a little tacky, especially given its salacious carrier (trying hard not to spoil plot reveals). Then there are simply questions of believability. I?m not expecting a journalistic document of the American educational system, but since when was a high school student losing their virginity scandalous gossip? Why would Olive become the talk of the town by doing something that, according to the CDC, 80% of men and 75% of women have accomplished by age 19? Now, later in the film, the whiff of prostitution would definitely create a stir in the social gossip machine, and with technology, a rumor can spread at the speed of texting.

The film follows a well-worn path and owes a serious debt to the teen films of the 1980s, but Easy A is a winning teen comedy thanks to a snappy script, a playful sense of the taboo, and the courage to shoot for a higher level joke, also Stone’s charismatic comedic performance makes the grade. The entire movie has this bustling, quirky energy to it that feels un-labored. They make it all look so easy. Despite being a thorough genre flick, it is lifted thanks to its zesty writing and acting. In the most simplistically crass terms, Easy A scores.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Catfish (2010)

Catfish is a slippery pseudo-documentary that seeks to explore the idea of human connection in the digital age. What does it mean when people’s friends originate from a glowing box?

The film chronicles the online relationship of Yaniv “Nev” Schulman. He’s a twenty-something New York City photographer who gets a painting in the mail one day. It’s a painting based upon one of his pictures published in a New York magazine. A 12-year-old girl saw the photo and was inspired to paint. She keeps sending more and more paintings to Nev in New York. He researches the 12-year-old, her family, and eyes pictures of Megan, her older sister. Megan is a strikingly good-looking model who also dances, plays the cello, writes songs, and raises horses. Nev and Megan have several conversations via phone, texting, online chatting, e-mail, and Facebook postings. It’s a relationship completely dependent on thumbs. Then Nev, along with his filmmaking friends Henry Joost and Nev’s brother, Ariel Schulman, start noticing peculiarities. Why does Megan pass off other people’s songs as her own? Why does she never seem to be around when other family members are? Is Megan really Megan? The guys start investigating and deconstructing this online romantic fable. Nev’s friends prod him into making an unexpected road trip to Megan’s family home in Ishpeming, Michigan. They’re excited and morbidly curious about what awaits them.

I suppose your ultimate feelings about this movie will depend upon whether you view Catfish as a work of fiction or non-fiction. In either case, there’s a lot of manipulation and exploitation. Even if you do some half-hearted Internet research, you can find real-life events mentioned in the film that actually happened. A real-life special needs child died in the town of Ishpeming, as described in the closing text of the film. That means that a character we see late in the film is either the genuine special needs child or was a stand-in for one and the filmmakers took advantage of a community’s loss for “authenticity.” Which is more manipulative? Nev and his pals want to expose this scheming family, broadcasting private messages and intruding upon their lives with cameras to document their foibles. From my assessment, the film felt staged from start to finish. What luck they had cameras rolling for all these important moments of inquiry. But does that mean that the film is any less believable? The movie examines how easy it is not just to create a different persona, or new friends via the Internet; it showcases how the Internet allows people to create their own world. People lose themselves in alternate online realities, not just social-networking sites like Facebook but The Sims, Second Life, World of Warcraft, and all sorts of other avatar-based sites. The Internet allows us to fashion our own worlds, our own escape door from reality. Our grasp on reality has become subjective, which is further evidence that the truthfulness of the film is a moot point (a fictional non-fiction film about people posing as fictional versions of who they want to be online?). What does identity mean in an age of ever-increasing fiction?

As a film, Catfish is a mess of digital images. We see Facebook posts and text messages, scrutinize images posted Online, scroll through Google and YouTube for damming evidence of a con, and the guys make extensive use of Google Earth to showcase their cross-country travels. The visual do-it-yourself aesthetic contributes to the stab at authenticity as well as amateur journalism. The framing of the shots, however, is another point that tips Catfish into being a likely work of fiction. Whatever the case may be, the filmmakers and the subjects aren’t speaking one way or another.

Those snookered by Catfish’s sensational trailer (there will be many) are likely in for a crushing disappointment. Catfish begins as a slightly intriguing mystery as Nev and his buddies uncover the irregularities and discrepancies of Megan. Then when the trio actually arrives in Ishpeming in the dead of night, there’s about a ten-minute stretch of “don’t go in there!” cinema. Nev’s filmmaking pals egg it on with self-aware comments about how scared they are or how creepy the situation is becoming. Then again, who exactly peaks into an abandoned horse farm in the dead of night? At this point, goaded by the trailer, you’re expecting Catfish to go down the grisly horror path. You expect they will discover some terrifying secret like that Megan is apart of a family of grifters that lure unsuspecting men from the Internet to be butchered and have their organs sold. Catfish does not go down that path. It actually pretty much goes the way you’d expect in real life. It actually turns out to be a fairly normal, mundane story, something that would have made an interesting one-hour TV special (“To Catch an Internet Poser”? It would run for decades). Catfish begins as a warning about how well we can truly know someone in the digital age, but then it concludes as a thoughtful character-piece about the steps people take to alleviate the disappointments and hardships of life.

Catfish has some moments of intrigue and tension, but at most the film is a mildly interesting experiment. It straddles many creative lines. It’s both fiction and non-fiction, humane and exploitative, probing and lethargic, a fitting contradistinction about a world that full of them. It’s a mostly well-crafted movie but what do you do with it after you know all its secrets? Nev and his crew are on a crusade for the truth, but whose truth? If you’re looking for a true stimulating experience exploring life in the Internet age, check out The Social Network again. Talking and analyzing Catfish is more intriguing than actually viewing the film.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Leap Year (2010)

It’s not funny. It has more clichés than imaginable. The very premise that a woman has to travel all the way to Ireland to be “allowed” to propose to her long-time boyfriend is bizarre and borderline offensive. And yet, the unmistakably lowball chick flick is watchable thanks to the charms of leads Amy Adams and Matthew Goode. The two actors pretend like they’re in a different, better movie, and the illusion lasts just long enough for the film to come to its typical happy ending before you sit back and say, “Hey, that was pure junk.” Ireland is treated yet again as this quaint place of hospitality and magic, like it’s some postcard wonderland. Granted, the scenery is beautiful, and director Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie, Shopgirl) is quite taken with his shooting locations, highlighting the natural beauty of the Emerald Isles. With all the attention on the scenery, and not so much the plot, you realize that everyone signed up for this movie as a means of having a paid vacation. And I can’t blame them or hate their movie, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it either.

Nate’s Grade: C

Machete (2010)

Based on a fake Grindhouse trailer comes a tasty Tex-Mex exploitation film that manages to be an incendiary political statement wrapped in the flour tortilla of silly, bloody, and redeemably entertaining B-movie schlock. Only occasionally will the pacing slack, and co-director Robert Rodriguez’s film actually desires to become another trashy B-movie rather than sending them up with a wink, which was also an issue with his half of Grindhouse. All credit must go to the towering lead played by 66-year-old tough guy Danny Trejo. The man is unmistakable with an appearance like he was carved out of wood. His stoic, humorless main character (“Machete don’t text”) that becomes a superhuman enforcer for the rights of illegal immigrants. Machete satirizes xenophobic politics and race-baiting politicians (“If we don’t do something, Texas will become Mexico… again”) with aplomb, notably thanks to Robert DeNiro?s slimy state senator. The film slices up opponents of immigration as outsized zealots abusing immigrants for cheap labor and railing against them for cheap political points. I actually read that some conservative pundits were concerned that Machete would incite a race war, as if any movie had that kind of power today. The reason this movie works and The Expendables doesn’t is all tone. Machete never tries to be a straight movie from the opening seconds. Stuffed with over-the-top violence, slapstick comedy, bodacious babes (Michelle Rodriguez with an eye-patch has never looked more yummy), and Steven Seagal and his hair plugs as a Mexican drug lord, Machete is trashy fun but exceedingly trashy and exceedingly fun.

Nate’s Grade: B

Remember Me (2010)

How much time do we give before our memories are used as unnecessary and cheap dramatic ploys to wring out tears? Remember Me will test your sensibilities on what should be classified as art and what should be designated as hacky, shameless exploitation.

Tyler Hawkins (Robert Pattinson) is a troubled 21-year-old college student in New York City. He’s mostly estranged from his rich, distant father (Pierce Brosnan). Tyler’s older brother hanged himself five years earlier, and that personal tragedy still lingers. Tyler quotes poetry, writes letters to his dead brother, and has his share of run-ins with the police. Sergeant Neil Craig (Chris Cooper) busts Tyler and his friend (Tate Ellington, mostly annoying) one night after the duo tries to clear up a brawl. Then the boys discover that the sergeant’s daughter, Ally (Lost‘s Emilie de Ravin) also attends their college. They devise a sketchy means of getting even: Tyler will date Ally. A subway mugger killed her mother when she was 9 years old, so the two bond over family misfortune. He asks her out for dinner and she appears cautious, but it isn’t long before love is in the air. Dad doesn’t approve but that won’t stop Ally from spending time with her special someone. Suddenly Tyler is vulnerable and coming out of his shell. It looks like things might work out though you don?t really comprehend why, then things take a sudden turn and very much do not work out. More details on that plot development later.

Remember Me does not work for many reasons, but as designed, it was never going to work. Allow me to go into greater analysis, which will naturally unleash a horde of spoilers concerning the film’s conclusion.

This movie will not work; in fact it refuses to work from a conceptual standpoint. The story seems retrofitted to lead directly to the ending. Screenwriter Will Fetters seems to have followed the M. Night Shyamalan approach to screenwriting and come up with a twist ending and worked backwards. You see dear reader, the film climaxes on a day burned into the memories of everyone who lived through it — September 11, 2001. The movie plays coy with its timeline the whole time, never drawing too much attention to its exact setting. Tyler even goes to see American Pie 2 to lift his spirits, and who besides people who are crazy about film release dates would know that was released back in August 2001? There’s also a jump forward of ten years from the murder of Ally’s mother in 1991, but that’s the last time the movie ever reminds you about time. Instead, it makes sure that all the pieces will be in place so that Tyler will be standing on the 90th floor of the World Trade Center, looking off into the horizon for the last day. Fetters’ story uses a national trauma as a dramatic tragedy for his doomed lovers. But here’s the thing: anything else would have worked the same. Did Tyler really have to die in the 9/11 attacks? Could he not have had an accident, gotten mugged, hit by a car, or any number of other missteps that would have the same effect? The emphasis isn’t on the relationship of 9/11 to the characters; 9/11 just serves as the event to wipe out one half of our relationship. But any other event would have resulted in the same effect without coming across as so icky and exploitative. The movie does not work because it’s designed as a ?gotcha? ending but the only “gotcha” is that 9/11 is shamefully used to spin this illusion that Remember Me is meaningful and transcendent.

The other half of this argument could go as such: Fetters was trying to tell but one tale of the many that lost their lives on 9/11, illuminating the fantastic human toll and how each number was a person with a family and friends that will forever miss them. That would have been sufficient. Hollywood and the cinema have a history of taking national tragedies and showcasing individuals who were lost. I even declared United 93, the docu-drama painstakingly detailing the final moments aboard that downed airline, the best film of 2006, and four years later I still stand by that declaration. Artists can take collective pain and showcase triumph and substance, allowing us a cathartic means for therapy and working through trauma. I believe with every fiber of my being that art has the power to heal and elucidate.

However, Remember Me is not that kind of art. If Fetters had a strong desire to showcase one of the lives lost that horrific day, that’s a noble effort. But the drama of Remember Me is stagnant and suffused with stereotypes and one-note characters bumbling around, uncertain what exactly they should be doing. It almost seems like everyone is simply waiting for the Big Event at the end, and that in itself is disquieting. The character dynamics of this movie couldn’t get more cliché. This sloppy, overcooked weepie has the Bad Boy and you know he?s troubled because he has stubble and smokes. Pattinson also spends 80 percent of his screen time looking forlorn. I’m sorry, but looking off screen and being forlorn are not replacements for good character development. He’s lost a brother and he?s mad at his distant, workaholic father, but you might as well describe him as Boy. That’s pretty much his extent in this film. His love interest could equally be named simply Girl. The two have a shared history of family tragedy, but then what? Do we learn anything about Ally as a person, about what draws her to Tyler (besides that haircut, of course), or how her life is made more whole thanks to the brooding bad boy? No. It would be generous to even refer to these characters as archetypes. They are characters in name only. Fetters has cobbled an equation that simply boils down to Boy + troubled past + Girl + troubled past = perfect future. Even worse, their whirlwind courtship feels like it exists in some movie world where gazes and hugs substitute for the excitement of romance, of feeling out the interested party and becoming overwhelmed with the sheer possibility of a relationship. This is only a love story from a the standpoint of that equation. You never believe for a second that anybody matters because they only feel like puppets meant to go through the motions until the film reaches its anvil of a climax. Then, you see, we’re supposed to feel because there is death, except I didn?t see any convincing signs of life beforehand.

The rest of the story is awash with bizarre and mostly lame elements meant to heighten the ensemble drama. For whatever reason, Tyler’s friend coaxes him into initially dating Ally as a contrived means of sticking it to her father. This tiny yet stupid hurdle will of course be revisited when the film’s second act break comes calling. But why does this past run-in even matter? Romantic comedies have all sorts of plots where the couple begins their time together through some duplicitous guise, and of course the truth drops just as guy and girl are starting to really like one another. But in Remember Me it isn’t a bet or something nefarious that brings boy and girl together. If anything, the run-in with dad could be seen as an introduction. The “get revenge” idea isn’t something that’s ever revisited by Tyler or his friend, nor do they at any point provide further detail. It remains a vague notion from beginning to end.

Then there’s Tyler’s own family drama. The strangest plot addition is when Tyler’s younger sister attends a birthday party. It is at this birthday party that a cohort of mean girls gives Caroline Hawkins an unflattering makeover. This bad haircut is then played for ridiculous dramatic overkill. Everyone around the kid is speaking in hushed tones, trembling, recollecting as a family unit, and pretty much acting like Caroline had been molested when, at worst, she got her hair cut by some mean girls. Tyler even escorts his kid sis to school and almost decks one of the little girls responsible, instead choosing to huff and puff in her face like a raging bull. I guess when you’re Pattinson and a good third of your acting comes from your haircut, you take follicle care very seriously.

Remember Me is so anxious to be poetic. It’s not. It’s pedantic and faux intellectual. It wants to be a moving romance. It?s not. It?s two pretty but bland characters that just seem to play around furniture and eventually do it. They’re as interesting as bland pretty people usually are in these things. It wants to be a significant drama that manages to say something big. It’s not. It’s a slapdash effort revolving entirely around the eventual reveal of a “gotcha” ending that does nothing to justify all the strained spinning. At best, the ending is in poor taste and a cheap trick to gin up sympathy and give the impression of substance. At worst, it’s ugly exploitation that reduces a national tragedy into a last-ditch effort to cover the empathetic deficiencies of a lackluster drama. Flogging national suffering to make an audience feel for your bland characters after an empty 100 minutes? That’s offensive. Remember Me isn’t worth any outrage. It?s a pretty but mostly empty venture designed around a twist. It is anything but worth remembering, even in disgust.

Nate’s Grade: D+

The Town (2010)

There are many people who think they can direct. It just looks easy to people. You get to tell everybody what to do all day. Who wouldn’t want that, right? And actors always think they know everything already, so there’s a litany of actors who feel like they can make the jump from in front of the camera to behind it with ease. Not everybody is going to be a Clint Eastwood, or a Robert Redford, or even the best of the current crop, a George Clooney. Every now and then you’ll find a true surprise, like Todd Field (In the Bedroom, Little Children) or Sarah Polley (Away From Her), but most actor/director projects come across like indulgent one-time pet projects (see: Drew Barrymore’s Whip It). Ben Affleck has easily endured his slings and arrows as an actor, though I’ve always found the man to be likeable, charming, and intelligent. Even so, nobody can excuse Gigli. When Affleck tried on the director hat for 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, it was easy to be skeptical. But then critics and audiences saw the film, which Affleck also co-wrote, and realized that this guy might have some serious chops after all. The Town, Affleck’s second directorial effort, proves that Affleck has found his rightful place in movies.

Doug (Ben Affleck) is a lifelong criminal living in the working class Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. We learn that this one-square mile produces more bank robbers than anywhere else in the world. It is a neighborhood seeped in the lifestyle of crime, the silent omissions of sin. Doug and his crew’s latest heist went according to plan except for one detail. Jem (Jeremy Renner), fresh from doing a nine-year prison stint, has taken the bank manager hostage in a moment of panic. The men blindfold Claire (Rebecca Hall) and deposit her along the Boston shoreline. Doug and his guys then become alarmed when they spot Claire in their neighborhood. She lives in Charlestown. Will she recognize them? FBI Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) check up on her and requests interviews. Is it only a matter of time before she discovers the truth? Jem wants to handle it quick and dirty, but Doug insists that he take the lead. He watches her from afar and can’t help but feel sorry for the trauma he has caused her. He asks her out for a drink after meeting her and Doug can’t stop himself from falling for her. Jem is incensed and convinced she’ll give them all away. Doug must reconcile his life?s choices and Claire now gives him a reason to finally walk away from the only life he’s known.

It didn’t take long for me to know I was in for something good. The pre-title opening sequence sets the tone and informs you that Affleck will be firmly settled in the director’s chair for some time. The opening bank heist crashes your attention. It’s filmed in quick cuts, swift camera movements, mimicking the ambush of the criminals as they throw people to the ground, upturn desks, and smash general office supplies. Then the scene cuts to a security camera footage of the same scene, and it’s static, and eerily silent and the contrast is fantastic. Then we smash right back into the fray and the chaos. Affleck refrains from the film turning into senseless genre junk. The violence in this film hurts. You feel its impact and wince at its approach, and you already get this sense before the credits even show up. Affleck wants his visceral violence to mean something, and these men of violence become more intimidating. Then there’s a scene about an hour in that had me gnawing my hand in anxiety. It all revolved around the possible reveal of an identifiable neck tattoo, where the only character who knows all the particulars of danger is Doug. He’s trying to nervously watch the eye line of the conversation, and I was physically trying to instruct the characters onscreen. The fact that I could get so caught up in a sequence of stellar tension that doesn’t involve cars, guns, or even overt threats of violence is a testament to the abilities of Affleck the director.

Doug’s crew is not a fly-by-night operation. They are honed professionals, knowing the timing codes for bank locks, how to dismantle security camera systems, and splash bottles of bleach all over the premises to eliminate usable fingerprints. And yet, when is enough enough? It feels like only days before Jem is pushing everybody for another job. They’ve barely had time to launder the money through drugs and gambling, given a cut to the local crime boss (Pete Postlethwaite), and they?re anxious for another score. Doesn’t anybody want to lie low for a while before the heat dissipates? Either this is just a conceit of only being able to work in a two-hour narrative or indicative or what a consistently dangerous life these men lead. These men know exactly where they?re headed; in fact, they seem resigned to their fate. Perhaps the expedited schedule is just another form of self-destruction or an impatient death wish, or perhaps it’s just an inflated sense of invincibility by guys who are good at what they do.

The area where The Town could have been better is with its higher ambitions. The Town dutifully delivers the goods when it comes to a crime picture. The three holdups are all satisfying, taut, well paced, and the action is choreographed in a manner that’s easy to comprehend. The middle holdup creates some dynamic images as the men speed through Boston dressed in plastic nun masks and armed with machine guns. There are several standout moments and images that prove Affleck knows how to frame an exciting action thriller. The climax is great, though the denouement leaves something to be desired. You pretty much anticipate what beats the movie has to hit as a genre piece. These brothers in arms will likely follow the path of doomed protagonists. But Affleck clearly wanted his second feature to be more than a slick genre flick. He had his sights set on examining systemic and cyclical nature of crime and abandonment. The opening informs us that bank robbing is a trade passed down in Charleston from fathers to sons. Doug’s crew are all second-generation criminals, their long absent fathers serving sentences in federal prisons. Affleck wants to explore the nature of what separates good people who make bad decisions, digging into the limited lifestyles afforded to these blue-collar lugs who have lived in brutality. The Town doesn’t quite succeed in this regard. The somewhat saggy middle touches upon these ideas but fails to spend enough time for anything substantial to stick. Gone Baby Gone was a better study of class and moral ambiguity. With The Town, you readily identify who the good bad guys are and who the bad bad guys are.

Just like Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s second feature excels with a glorified group of actors all given room to find their characters and show off their skills. Each actor kind of gets their own space to work and they all, from top to bottom, give stirring performances. The standouts among the cast include Renner and Lively, both barely recognizable in their parts. Renner (The Hurt Locker) is channeling James Cagney from his 1930s gangster pictures. Renner is a live-wire and creates bundles of nervous tension whenever he enters a scene. He doesn’t even have to say a word. His intensity radiates and keeps all the other actors on their toes, rightfully wary of the short-fused Jem. He’s magnetic, steals the film, and even gets a slightly touching sendoff that has managed to stay with me. Lively, best known as the fabulous face of the fabulous high-end TV show Gossip Girl, is going to open plenty of eyes about her potential. She plays Krista, Jem’s sister and damaged love interest to Doug before Claire comes onto the scene. Lively has levels of makeup and hard living coating her magazine-friendly good looks. Lively just doesn’t rely on makeup tricks to stand in the way for her character. She feels like the most tragic soul in the film. She has a kid, likely destined to be removed from her at some point, she operates as a drug mule, and she’s hitched her wagon to Doug as the man that will save her. When that comes apart, Lively herself disintegrates as well, but it’s never in a showy style. She barely conceals the pain consuming her very being. Her eyes are dead of life. Plus, her accent is spot-on.

The other performers give strong work just at a level slightly below Renner and Lively. Directing himself, Affleck gives a fine if overly whispery lead performance. Hall (Frost/Nixon, The Prestige) is effectively broken as she works through the post-traumatic stress and uncertainty her character suffers from. She’s highly empathetic, though you’re left wondering what she sees in Doug. Hamm (TV’s Mad Men) is so damn handsome but I wish he had more to do than running around and barking orders. His character always seems to be a mouth for exposition and chews over his righteous indignation. Chris Cooper (Breach) has one total scene in this movie as Doug’s imprisoned father but he nails it. His antipathy for his son and his late mother spills over but the moment never screams what can be expressed with subtlety. To Affleck notable credit, nobody in a movie about cops and robbers gives a performance that could be labeled as over-the-top or campy. These are genre roles but they are treated like real, muscular characters.

The Town cements Affleck’s status as a director. This is a more accessible, streamlined yet sturdy genre picture that has real reverence for working class Boston neighborhoods. I love the faces Affleck peoples his films with, real people. It’s small touches that add to the authenticity and visceral nature of the movie, touches that help make The Town more than just another run-of-the-mill crime movie. While there may not be anything groundbreaking on display (though I think Renner may get remembered when it comes time for awards season), Affleck’s directing credentials are only strengthened. This isn’t as good a movie as Gone Baby Gone, but what this film showcases is Affleck’s ongoing journey as a director, the shaping of his Michael Mann-esque style, and his intent to marry great drama with great characters played by great actors. I can genuinely say that I look forward to whatever Affleck picks to be his next feature. He?s here to stay, baby.

Nate’s Grade: B

Cop Out (2010)

As an avid Kevin Smith fan, it pains me to say this but Cop Out might be one of the least funny movies of the year. Sure it made me chuckle here and there, but mostly I sat staring slack-jawed, yawning, and wondering how this movie went so completely wrong. Smith is known without exception as a talent behind the typewriter, not the camera. He’s an ingeniously crass playwright in a filmmaker’s body. To hire Smith solely as director/visual storyteller is like hiring Picasso to mow your lawn — not the best use of his talents. To Smith’s credit, the film has a much stronger visual pulse than anything he’s ever committed to celluloid before, however, it still only looks like a marginal, mediocre Hollywood movie. Is that considered a success? The movie wants to parody the buddy cop action films of the 1980s. One of the more amusing additions is that Harold Faltermeyer (Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun) fashions a brand new 80s style synth and guitar styled score. It’s the best and funniest part of the movie. Cop Out spends an inordinate amount of time and attention to a tortuous plot that nobody should care about. Another miscalculation is that the tone never really settles and often Smith and company attempt a light touch when it comes to parody, which makes the film just look like an incompetent retread of 80s action movies. Just because we’re familiar with stuff doesn’t mean it can be funny without comment. The movie looks even shabbier in comparison with Will Ferrell’s similarly aimed The Other Guys, a far more winning and funnier venture. I wanted to laugh; I strained to find something to appreciate, which was especially hard as the movie tilts more toward action in the final 20 minutes. The slack pacing, lame dialogue, poor chemistry between lead cops Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan (who just comes off as an unfunny idiot with a loudspeaker for a mouth), disjointed tonality, and ill-conceived comic setups (car chase in a cemetery leads to? nothing? Morgan chases a suspect while he wears a cell phone costume … *crickets*) all take their toll and make me seriously question what drew the interest of so many, otherwise, talented people. Smith got hours of stories after shooting a small role alongside Willis for Die Hard 4. I hope Smith can justify this load with a few more hours of entertaining and juvenile stories for his road shows and podcasts. If that sounds like a faint attempt to find a silver lining for what is otherwise a tremendously botched comedy, then let it be seen as such.

Nate’s Grade: C-

R.E.D. (2010)

I can watch Helen Mirren fire high-powered weapons all day. RED is a jaunt throwaway that manages to be far more entertaining than it has any right to be. This isn’t excess on the level of The A-Team, nor is it all cynical and emotionless like Wanted. RED is the film that The Expendables could have been with a bit more polish and a little less muscle flexing. The premise almost seems worn out by this point in 2010: retired CIA agents are being hunted down and killed for some mysterious reason. Thus Bruce Willis must travel across the country and recruit his former spooks like Morgan Freeman, a daffy John Malkovich, and dame Mirren. He also gets a rather charming romance with Mary-Louise Parker (TV’s Weeds) as a pension customer service rep that Willis dials up for small talk. She gets whisked along this madcap adventure and enjoys it for the ride that it is. And I think that’s the best summation of the film. What other movie of this sort has actors of this caliber? Four Oscar winners, one nominee, plus solid work from Karl Urban (Star Trek) and beloved character actor Brian Cox to boot. The film definitely has a style, slick enough to please without being heavy-handed to rip you out of the film. The plot may be full of holes, the characters aren’t fully drawn, and certain action sequences are derivative, but thanks to the charms of its golden cast, RED is fun while it lasts.

Nate’s Grade: B

Robin Hood (2010)

So what happens when you make a Robin Hood movie that doesn’t have any Robin Hood? What’s the point of revisiting the legend when you don’t even bother incorporating the elements that made it legendary to begin with? It’s not like they sacrificed familiarity for historical accuracy. Director Ridley Scott’s film spends more time setting up the various pieces of a Robin Hood tale; it’s a prequel at best. This is mostly a historical drama about the English faring off French invasions (the opening text also identifies the setting as the wrong century). The film still manages to be relatively entertaining. The production design and cinematography are top-notch, the acting is robust, Russell Crowe makes a good, if aged, Hood, and the action sequences are thrilling and visually striking. The problem is that there are few action sequences and way too much yakking about foreign policy and Medieval politics and debt. I don’t think people were clamoring for a big-budget Robin Hood revival that explores in depth the financial consequences of an overextended military on the English treasury. This is just not an appealing origin story. The movie resorts to having Hood pose as Maid Marion’s (Cate Blanchett) husband, and it’s as eye-rollingly contrived as any sitcom setup. Originally, the film was designed so that Crowe would play both Hood and the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham (barely seen in the movie). While that is a terrible and senseless idea, at least it would have made the film worth watching from morbid curiosity. Robin Hood isn’t a bad film, but it barely ranks as a Hood outing, and it’s steps behind the delightfully cheesy Kevin Costner version.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Vampires Suck (2010)

I anticipate and dread the arrival of each new spoof from the wretched comedy team of writer/directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. The pair are responsible for some of the worst movies of the modern era, blindly groping for some sort of fleeting pop-culture relevance. I vehemently oppose their idea of what constitutes comedy and I resent that these two nitwits get to keep making their reprehensibly awful spoof movies at the pace of one a year. They may have taken 2009 off but they released two regrettable spoof movies in 2008 (Meet the Spartans and Disaster Movie), and those two films tied for the honor of my Worst Film of that year. Think of all the exciting, groundbreaking, eclectic, and challenging independent movies that could be bankrolled with the budget of one of these self-indulgent, disposable, juvenile, pop-culture-saturated comedies. Each new Friedberg/Seltzer movie is like a slap in the face and a reminder that the lowest common denominator rules along with the almighty dollar. So I have an open slot at number one on my annual Worst Movies list for whatever Friedberg/Seltzer slap together. I anticipated that their spoof of the popular Twilight series would be more of the same. Vampires Sucks is another ghastly, failed attempt at parody that goes off the rails early and often, but it’s not as egregious as past Friedberg/Seltzer comedy abortions. It’s not even the worst movie of 2010 I’ve seen this year, which is a complete shock. After careful deliberation, that ignoble honor remains with The Bounty Hunter. I never thought a movie could out-suck a Friedberg/Seltzer suckfest.

The plot pretty much follows the first two Twilight films closely. Becca Crane (Becca Proske) is the new girl in Sporks, Washington (laughing yet?). She’s living back with her father (Diedrich Bader) and looking for a way to fit in. Then along comes Edward Sullen (Matt Lanter) and the two can’t resist each other. He’s a vampire, she’s a moody teen girl, blah blah blah. There’s also Jacob White (Chris Riggi) who turns into a little toy dog instead of a werewolf. He also chases after cats. How can you resist?

There are less throwaway pop-culture references that have a predetermined expiration date soon approaching. Sure, there’s still references to pop-culture figures without any meaning of setup, context, or satire, like half-hearted momentary glances to the Jersey Shore goons, Gossip Girl, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and an inexplicable reference to Alice in Wonderland. The heroine is seen getting shot by a stray bullet and falling down the rabbit hole. What makes that funny? Is it funny because we recognize the identity of who was shot? Would it therefore not be funny if it was an unknown victim? Wouldn’t it be more amusing if the figure who got clipped was someone who people secretly, or openly, wished would get injured? Does anyone hold such animosity against Alice? But this example also showcases the comedy construction issues that plague Friedberg/Seltzer movies. I just don’t know if these guys understand the fundamentals (fall down = funny) but they haven’t advanced beyond the infantile stage. Take for instance a scene where Edward promises Becca that he won’t ever let anything hurt her. Obviously we know what will happen next and sure enough the roof caves in on her while Edward stands and grimaces. The joke sort of works (I’m feeling charitable) as long as the onslaught of bricks keeps falling on the off camera Becca. But when Friedberg and Seltzer cut to a shot of legs kicking underneath an increasing pile of bricks and hold onto the shot for ten seconds, it kills the gag. Editing choices change the violence from cartoonish to uncomfortable, and realistic violence is rarely funny.

Friedberg and Seltzer litter their script with wandering setups in desperate search for punch lines. Take the line: “We’re just like any normal family, except we never go to sleep and drink blood.” The line is begging for a “like” reference to make a further connection. As is, it’s a setup disguised as a weak punch line, and they’re everywhere in Vampires Sucks. I kept waiting for punch lines that never came. The best example is Bella and her friend leaving a theater that is playing the final Twilight film, Breaking Dawn (unclear which half). They stroll along the theater loudly complaining about the absurd ending and then the Twilight fans waiting outside are upset that the ending has been spoiled for them. This joke stands in direct conflict with the Twilight subculture it intends to satirize. Twilight fans are obsessed about their brand and alliances (Team Edward vs. Team Jacob). And these people would not wait a nano-second to be surprised by plot. They voraciously consume all things Twilight and know every detail. The idea that obsessive Twilight fans would willingly abstain from knowing the ending of the book series is preposterous. This joke does not work at the construction level.

Perhaps the reason why Vampires Sucks feels less scattershot and cannibalistic of pop-culture is because the film spends less time lampooning Twilight and more time replicating them. Many scenes play out in the same fashion as Twilight and New Moon, so you’re left scratching your head and waiting for when something deemed a “joke” in other contexts, though they don’t have the same feel here. What happens is that you end up with a Twilight movie that just ends scenes with people getting subjected to slapstick violence. A rule you can set your watch to: in a Friedberg/Seltzer movie, if a character throws something off screen, it will hit another character in the head or, if recipient of broadside is male, the junk.

Since the Twilight series is so overwrought with teenager hormones and old-fashioned yearning, it practically begs to be mocked. Because it’s so ripe a subject for ridicule every now and then Friedberg and Seltzer stumble upon a mildly effective shot at the goofy, gooey nature of the vampire series. It’s all criticisms that have been well established, including the pre-teen wish-fulfillment angle I’ve touched upon in all three of my personal Twilight reviews. One of the three and a half laughs I gave this movie was a faux alt-rock song by Magicwandos called “Panties” with lyrics like, “I feel so lonely/ Nobody gets me/ I feel so unhappy/ Why can’t I find a cool, alternative boyfriend?” and the chorus, “We can watch Degrassi/ Shop at Hot Topic/ Sexting dirty pics of me in my panties.” It’s pretty one-the-nose and not very nuanced but it got me to laugh, plus it’s a laugh I can credit to the band Magicwandos and not Friedberg and Seltzer. After five movies, Friedberg and Seltzer have made me laugh a total estimate of 8 times. At a combined 410 minutes, that’s .87 laughs per hour.

The lead actress is far, far too good for this movie. Proske delivers a spot-on impersonation of Kristen Stewart’s acting mannerisms, from playing with her hair, to lip biting, to the blink-heavy shifty eyes and mumbled monotone. Proske isn’t given much assistance from Friedberg and Seltzer but she still provides one reason to watch the screen for those painful 80 minutes. It’s too bad she isn’t given anything funny to do or say. It’s a waste of a perfectly good Kristen Stewart impersonation. You may also recognize Ken Jeong (The Hangover) and Dave Foley (Kids in the Hall) and openly wonder why good comedic actors would be duped into a Friedberg/Seltzer production. The answer can only be that of gambling debts. I’m shocked that Carmen Electra is nowhere to be seen, thus breaking her streak of appearances in 4 Friedberg/Seltzer movies.

In the realm of crappy cinema, Vampires Sucks definitely lives up to its lofty title. Yet it’s not the outright creative abomination and entertainment vacuum that was Epic Movie (worst films of 2007), Meet the Spartans, and Disaster Movie. Does that qualify the film as good? Not even close. Relying less on Friedberg and Seltzer’s M.O. of disposable pop-culture references posing as “jokes,” Vampires Sucks manages to suck less by the sheer genius act of laziness. The film doesn’t attempt as many jokes therefore offering fewer opportunities for jokes to die horrible, excruciating deaths. The ratio of comedic failure is still the same depressing level of ineptitude, but less jokes equates to less mind-numbing torture disguised as comedy. It also makes the movie more pointless and an even bigger waste of time than previous Friedberg/Seltzer efforts. It’s the kind of accident that doesn’t even allow for rubbernecking.

I’m finding it hard to as incensed as other Friedberg/Seltzer movies have made me. These guys bring out something virulent from me. Maybe it’s my love of movies and comedy and my distaste for hacks being rewarded for repeated hackwork. Maybe I’m trying to take a final stand against the cultural shift that confuses situation-free pop-culture references as jokes. Whatever the case, the guys are at the top of my cinematic shit list. So you can trust me when I say that Vampires Sucks is easily terrible, poorly conceived, poorly filmed, and with limited aims that it still misses by a mile, but it’s not the abysmal, faith-destroying experiences that the last three Friedberg/Seltzer offerings were. It is simply just bad. Really, really bad. And yet with Friedberg and Seltzer, that is an improvement. It’s all about perspective, people.

Nate’s Grade: D

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