Blog Archives

Movie 43 (2013)

1922There were two driving reasons why I chose to go see Movie 43, the collection of 13 comedy sketches from different writers and directors. First, the red band trailer made me laugh, so I figured it was worth a shot. If one sketch didn’t work, there was always another ready to cleanse my comedic palate. The other reason is that I have been compiling sketches written by myself and my friends with the intent to make my own sketch comedy movie in 2013. Part of me was also concerned that something so high-profile might extinguish my own project; maybe we came up with similar material with sketches. After watching Movie 43, a tasteless, disconnected, and ultimately unfunny collective, I have renewed hope for my own project’s success.

Like most sketch comedy collections, Movie 43 is extremely hit or miss. This ain’t no Kentucky Fried Movie or even the Kids in the Hall flick. Rating this worth viewing depends on which side racks up the most. Unfortunately, there’s more terribleness than greatness on display, but allow me to briefly call out the film’s true highlights. The best segment in the movie, the one that had me laughing the longest, was a bizarre fake commercial that does nothing more than presuppose that machines, as we know them, are really filled with small children to do the labor. Seeing little urchins inside a copy machine or an ATM, looking so sad, with the faux serious music welling up, it made me double over in laughter.

94243_galWith the actual vignettes, “Homeschooled” and “Truth or Dare” where the standouts that drew genuine laughter. “Homeschooled” is about a mother and father (real-life couple Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber) giving their son the total high school experience, which amounts to degrading humiliation. Dad makes fun of his son’s penis in the shower. Mom and Dad throw a party with the cool kids but don’t invite their son. Dad tapes his son to a flagpole. The kid gets his first awkward kiss thanks to his mom. It’s outrageous without falling victim into being crass for the sake of crass, a common sin amongst many of the vignettes. “Truth or Dare” starts off innocuously enough with Halle Berry (Cloud Atlas) and Stephen Merchant (Hall Pass) on a blind date. As the date progresses, they get into an escalating game of truth or dare that each has them doing offensive acts, like blowing out the candles on a blind kid’s birthday cake. This segment knows when to go for broke with it silliness and it doesn’t wear out its welcome, another cardinal sin amidst the other vignettes.

But lo, the unfunny sketches, or more accurately the disappointing sketches, outnumber the enjoyable. Far too often the sketches are of the one joke variety and the comedy rarely leaves those limited parameters. So a sketch about a blind date with a guy who has testicles hanging from his chin (Hugh Jackman) is… pretty much just that. There’s no real variation or complications or sense of build. It’s just that. A commercial about an iPod built to model a naked lady is… exactly that and nothing more. A speed dating session with famous DC superheroes like Batman (Jason Sudeikis), Robin (Justin Long), Supergirl (Kristen Bell) and others should be far cleverer than what we get. While I laughed at the sports sketch “Victory’s Glory,” it really all boils down to one joke: black people are better than white people at basketball. That’s it. “Middleschool Date” starts off interesting with a teen girl (Chloe Grace Moritz) getting her period on a date and the clueless men around her freaking out that she is dying. However, this is the one sketch that doesn’t go far enough. It really needed to increase the absurdity of the situation but it ends all too quickly and with little incident. “Happy Birthday” involves two roommates (Johnny Knoxville, Sean William Scott) interrogating an angry leprechaun (Gerard Butler) for his gold. It pretty much just sticks to slapstick and vulgar name-calling. That’s the more tiresome aspect of Movie 43, the collective feeling that it’s trying so desperately to be shocking rather than, you know, funny.

The worst offenders of comedy are the scathingly unfunny “Veronica” and “The Proposition.” With “Veronica,” Kieran Culkin tries to woo his lady (Emma Stone) with a series of off-putting sexual remarks, delivered in an off-putting “bad poetry delivery” manner, while the film is off-puttingly shot with self-conscious angles that do nothing for the comedy. It’s a wreck. “The Proposition” is just one big poop joke. It’s far more gross than gross-out.

94242_galThe frame story connecting the varied vignettes is completely unnecessary. Well, I suppose there is one point for its addition, namely to pad out the running time to a more feature-length 94 minutes. The wraparound storyline with Dennis Quaid pitching more and more desperate movie ideas never serves up any good jokes. Its only significance is to setup an ironic counterpoint that gets predictable and old fast. Example: Quaid says, “It’s a movie with a lot of heart and tenderness,” and we cut to a couple that plans on pooping on each other. See? You can figure out its setup formula pretty quick. I don’t understand why the people behind Movie 43 thought the perfect solution to pad out their running time was a dumb wraparound. These sketches don’t need a frame story; the audience is not looking for a logical link. For that matter why is the guy also pitching commercials? I would have preferred that the frame story was completely dropped and I got to have two or three more sketches, thus perhaps bettering the film’s ultimate funny/unfunny tally.

There will be a modicum of appeal watching very famous people getting a chance to cut loose, play dirty, and do some very outrageous and un-Oscar related hijinks. The big name actors do everything they can to elevate the material, but too many sketches are one joke stretched too thin. I suppose there may be contingents of people that will go into hysterical fits just seeing Hugh Jackman with chin testicles (I think the Goblin King in The Hobbit beat him to it), just like there will always people who bust a gut when a child or an old person says something inappropriate for their age, or when someone gets kicked in the nuts (the normal ones). I just found the majority of Movie 43 to be lacking. It settles far too easily on shocking sight gags and vulgarity without a truly witty send-up. It wants to be offensive, it gleefully revels in topics it believes would offend the delicate sensibilities of an audience, but being offensive and being funny are not automatically synonymous. You have to put real work into comedy. Movie 43 isn’t it.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Legion (2010)

Just to be upfront, I am a big fan of action movies making use of Christian mythology (sorry if the use of the word “mythology” offends some). You tell me a tale about angels, demons, in a contemporary setting no less, and I’m hooked. You give those two sides weapons and have them fight over the fate of mankind, and I’m already revving my engines. So please know that no matter what the artistic achievements of Legion may be, I was predisposed to enjoying a movie that features the angel Michael (Paul Bettany) on the poster with a sword in one hand and an automatic weapon in the other. The premise of Legion is that God has finally had it with mankind and is making good on his threat to “turn this thing around right now.” He’s sending a host of heavenly angels to … eliminate humanity. Michael rebelled, believing man was still capable of making good on its promise. So he fights alongside a handful of characters shacked up in Dennis Quaid’s greasy spoon diner in the middle of nowhere. The action isn’t really involving but the movies does have some cool moments, like when Michael goes mano-a-seraphim with Gabriel (a marble-mouthed Kevin Durand). Legion deals with an antagonist (God) that is so powerful that there have got to be arbitrary limits placed on that power. So the attacking angels don’t overwhelm the tiny diner with their superior numbers, nor does the Almighty just blink the troublemakers out of existence. The end doesn’t really give much in the way of clarity but I got what I wanted from a movie like Legion. Though, in retrospect, I really didn’t want sizzling acid popping from boils.

Nate’s Grade: C+

G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra (2009)

While plenty stupid, the big-budget G.I. Joe movie is actually passably entertaining. Sure the characters are one-note, the motivations and romances are strained, the acting is abysmal, Dennis Quaid looks to be in particular pain, the plot has too many unneeded flashbacks, the special effects are cheesy, and the movie is crammed with deliberate toy merchandizing connections, but I had fun with this flick. Director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) works the right kind of stupid, the loud noisy kind that manages to tickle a childlike sense of glee like watching an eight-year-old’s imagination blown up on screen. The scale of weapons and special vehicles and special suits and special ladies in special leather outfits for engaging in criminal activity should delight younger film goers. The action is frenetic (if there is a pane of glass within 100 miles, the movie assures that you will see it shatter) and the international collateral damage is colossal, so much so that G.I. Joe almost comes across as a goofy, straight-laced version of Team America. Certainly the benefactor of rock-bottom expectations, G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra is a brash blast of acceptable action movie stupidity. Grab a big bag of popcorn, shut off your brain, and enjoy the film’s cartoonish yet entertaining qualities.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Vantage Point (2008)

Vantage Point presents a terrorist strike and a presidential assassination from six different perspectives (though the advertising credits 8 perspectives). The Rashoman-style idea presents enough intrigue to sustain viewer involvement, but then it seems like the movie gets tired of its own gimmick, throws its hands in the air after the fifth trip down memory lane, and says, “Ah, forget this. Here’s what really happened,” and spells it out. The perspectives are too short and there are frankly too many; the idea is good but the execution is flawed. I think having possibly three perspectives play out for around 40 minutes each would have beefed up the plot and allowed for more intriguing criss-crossing. Not all of the perspectives are equally compelling (Forest Whitaker as a tourist with a camera seems like a lame way to bridge plot points) but they do link together and each submits a bevy of new questions and surprises. The swift, 90-minute running time means there’s precious little screen time to be doled out to the many characters, so don’t get used to seeing most after their main appearance. Vantage Point careens toward a finish that ties everything and every perspective together with a fairly nifty car chase. The movie could use some extra time spent on the flaccid characters (I’m at a total loss as for the motivation of several of them), and the film strains credibility, and yet it works as a passable thriller with enough of an edge to pass the time agreeably.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

I must confess a giant moment of geekery: for a month or so I waited patiently until the Wednesday before the new disaster opus The Day After Tomorrow opened so I could finally say, “The Day After Tomorrow opens … the day after tomorrow.” I’m surprised the marketing department didn’’t beat me to that punch.

Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) is an environmental scientist concerned about global warming trends and the chaos they could cause. He tries to alert government officials to these dangers but is met with a cold shoulder. Jack’s son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), is traveling to New York for a school quiz tournament on the slightly less grave mission of earning the affections of one of his classmates. Somewhere between the establishment of these two stories, all hell breaks loose. Jack and another researcher (Ian Holm) share data and discover that the world is headed toward a gigantic climate shift, a new Ice Age. While the world is crumbling, Jack is determined to reunite with his son, trapped in New York.

The special effects of The Day After Tomorrow are indeed awe-inspiring, but once they finish the viewer is left with a story that is, shall we say, overcast. Unlike director Roland Emmerich’s other disaster films with aliens or giant lizards, a cataclysmic climate shift is not a beatable foe, so the story is left without resolution. It’s kind of hard to vilify the weather.

What do you do once the world starts another Ice Age? Not much besides keeping your butt from freezing off. So this means that the crux of the “after” scenes revolve around Jack trying to reunite with his son. Jack tells his son to hole up where he is and, cue heroic music, he will come find him. Sure. Does anyone stop and question, “Why?” I know why Jack treks, on foot no less, from Philadelphia to New York, but it isn’t even necessary. His son and their friends are fine where they are and the only severe threat they face is when the giant frosty eye of the storm looms overhead. Quaid’s character has no opportunity to assist them during even that scene. I’m sure someone thought it would be a touching display of a father’s love for his son, but it’s really just winds up looking foolish. He tells his son not to move, then disobeys his own advice to venture out. Nothing of significance happens because of Jack’s journey. He might as well have stayed home and read a book.

The acting of any disaster flick is really confined to yelling and … panting, I suppose (which could also accurately describe the acting prowess of the late night programming of Showtime). Quaid is a sturdy hero but seems to look ten years older than normal. Gyllenhaal is one of my favorite young actors (I adore Donnie Darko) and, to his credit, he does a suitable job of running around and yelling.

Perhaps the funniest thing in The Day After Tomorrow is a Vice President who refuses to listen to environmental concerns that looks a heck of a lot like our current VP, Dick Cheney. The timeliness also extends to a somewhat witless president who, when faced with a crucial decision, turns to his VP and asks, “What do you think?”

The necessary scenes of planetary and civilization destruction are first-rate in the film. Emmerich is our premiere master of laying waste to the world, particularly New York City. Emmerich keeps our view of the carnage mostly restrained to long shots where we can witness the full magnitude of devastation he is trying to put forth.

The weather effects are top notch, especially a series of tornadoes that devastates downtown Los Angeles. There are some beautiful visual moments, like seeing thousands of birds migrating from impending doom, or a final image from above of the iced Statue of Liberty. Tomorrow also has a clever moment late in the film when the frost storm hovers over New York and forces characters to outrun advancing … frost. It’s not as stupid as it sounds. And, as per usual in disaster flicks, Mother Nature always knows where to strike – landmarks. How else does one explain the precision of taking out the Hollywood sign?

For a good hour, The Day After Tomorrow is great escapist entertainment. The scenes of destruction are riveting, and the moments leading up to them have great suspenseful pacing. The film’s climax is its half-way point, which is never a good sign. After all the floods, rain, snow, twisters, and everything Mother Nature has in her arsenal, we are left with characters scrambling around running from … wolves. Going from tidal waves to wolves is not exactly an increase in suspense.

There is a hilariously awful moment in the film involving Sam’’s wife, played by Sela Ward. Sela is a nurse at a hospital watching over a child with cancer. She refuses to leave him alone and waits for an ambulance to arrive, because, for some reason, the cancer kid can only be transported by ambulance. It’’s just distasteful and dumb that this storyline even exists: brave woman determined to stay by the side of cancer child.

The Day After Tomorrow is an exciting diversion that doesn’’t know what to do with itself after all the big money shots are spent. It’s like a balloon once the air is all out. Perhaps the creators should have consulted any prior warning about stranding an audience in a story that no one cares much about. It’s worth seeing, but it’s also worth leaving after Mother Nature unloads her goods.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Alamo (2004)

The Alamo was originally going to be the jewel in Disney’s 2003 Oscar crown. It began with a star-studded pedigree: Ron Howard directing, a screenplay by John Sayles and Stephen Gaghan, and Russell Crowe starring. Things got dicey when budget figures were debated, and Howard insisted on an R-rated cut for authenticity. After some creative wrangling, Howard left to get his gore fix on with another flick (The Missing), Crowe went off to sea (Master and Commander), and Disney tapped Johnny Lee Hancock to direct in the wake. Trouble is, Hancock had only directed one previous film, 2002’s The Rookie. The 90 million dollar movie was supposed to be released during December 2003, just in time for Oscar season. However, the editing needed more time, so Disney’s supposed award-grabber was delayed until April 2004. Now, given the final PG-13 product, were the wait and creative compromises worth all the trouble?

In The Alamo we follow the men of Texas, including surly drunk Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), idealistic Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid), girly aristocrat William Travis (Patrick Wilson), and legendary Davey Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton). They want to make Texas their home, but Mexican General, Santa Anna, has different plans and wants to reclaim the land for the glory of Mexico and, more importantly, for the glory of himself. As Santa Anna storms into Texas, a meager number of men take refuge in the Alamo, an old Spanish mission, and arm themselves for an eventual battle between the merciless General and his thousands of soldiers.

The pacing of this movie is about as fast as a tumbleweed. An entire act of this movie involves Texans and Santa Anna’s men exchanging a shot here, a volley there, back and forth and back and forth for no reason. It certainly doesn’’t build tension. It just squanders time, and this thing is 2 hours and 20 minutes long! If it weren’’t for my free bag of popcorn I would have fallen asleep countless times during viewing.

The acting of The Alamo may make you want to throw up a white flag yourself. Jason Patric spends the majority of his time on his back with teeth clenched, and when that’s not the case he’s lookin’’ to get his famous blade a cameo. Quaid seems to have a frog permanently lodged in his throat. The only performer who walks away unscathed is Thornton. He gives a humanistic touch to the familiar character of Davey Crockett and shows the wear of living up to legend.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about The Alamo is how poorly directed it is. I know Johnny Lee Hancock has only one previous movie under his saddle, but my jaw hit the floor when I saw how flat his direction was. Scenes and angles are very awkwardly framed, everything is too flat or too rigid, his cinematography is an underwhelming mixture of silhouette shots and dusty hues, his sets look like a high school production, and his action scenes are staged without any sense of excitement or tension. Excluding one shot that shows the battle on all four sides of the Alamo, seen prominently in the trailers and TV spots, there isn’’t a single shot in this entire film that looks great. This is one of the worst looking $90 million film I have ever seen.

The script is another factor in driving down the entertainment. The makers strive for historical accuracy and to show both sides of the conflict without bias. So we get what all modern historical films feature now, namely the Famous People with Flaws. Bowie drinks a lot. Travis is unsure of himself and leaves his family. Boone doesn’t live up to hyperbolic legend. This information is fine, but The Alamo tries so hard to get the characters accurate that it fails in getting the characters right. I’m not calling for the return of myths, but The Alamo is so focused on the details that that’s all these characters become: historical details instead of living, breathing people.

The script also shirks any kind of detailed look at the role of minorities involved during the siege. Black people hardly mention slavery (and Texas would go on to become the largest slave state), women are designated as caregivers, either tending to the wounded or becoming floaty fantasies. The Alamo feels more like a eulogy than a film. And how many eulogies do people pay 5-10 bucks to go see?

I think what ultimately sinks this movie for me is my roots. I’’m not from Texas, I don’t know anyone from Texas, I don’t know if everything is bigger in Texas, and I don’t know if I’’ve ever messed with Texas, but the lone star state clings to the martyrdom of the Alamo like the crucifixion of Jesus. When I was watching The Alamo I kept having one reoccurring thought: is this accomplishing anything? In my assessment, no it did not. A bunch of Texans banded up in an old mission and fought Santa Anna but there was no reason for it and nothing was really gained. Someone will argue that they held up Santa Anna and allowed Sam Houston to collect his army and eventually take down Santa Anna. I would counter that with, “”You know what else could delay Santa Anna? Anything.””

The Alamo is an overlong, overly serious, flat, uninteresting bore. It feels more like a textbook and less like a story. Sure it’s not the jingoistic flag-waver that John Wayne’’s 1960 version was, and I can appreciate trying to get history right, but The Alamo is so insanely by-the-book serious that it’s as fun as a funeral march. It seems like the director and the producers were so afraid of telling the story of the Alamo wrong that they lost the ability to tell a good story. Only ardent history buffs, and maybe ardent Texans, will find anything appealing about this boring history lesson.

Nate’s Grade: C

Traffic (2000)

The war on drugs may be one worth fighting but it’s a battle that every day seems more and more impossible. Traffic is a mirror that communicates the fruition of our current procedures to stop the illegal flow of drugs.

Traffic is told through three distinct and different narratives. One involves an Ohio Supreme Court justice (Michael Douglas) newly appointed as the nation’s next Drug Czar. While he accepts his position and promises to fight for our nation’s children, back at home, unbeknownst to him, his daughter is free-basing with her bad influence boyfriend. Another story involves a wealthy bourgeois wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) awakened to her husband’s arrest. Her shock continues when family lawyer Dennis Quaid informs her of her husband’s true source of income. He’s to be prosecuted by two DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) unless she can do something. The final and most compelling narrative involves Benicio Del Toro as an honest cop in Tijuana battling frustration with the mass corruption surrounding the city. Each story weaves in and out at various points in the film.

Traffic was photographed and directed by the man with the hottest hand in Hollywood, Steven Soderbergh. He uses a documentary feel to his filming that adds to the realism. Different color tones are assigned toward the three narratives as reflections of the emotional background. Soderbergh expertly handles the many facets of the drug industry and pulls out his typical “career best” performances from his onslaught of actors.

Benicio Del Toro is the emotional center of Traffic. His solemn demeanor and hound dog exterior reflect a good man trying to fight the good fight in a corrupt environment. He effortlessly encompasses determination, courage, and compassion that you’ll easily forget the majority of his lines are in Espanol. Benicio is an incredibly talented actor and one with such vibrant energy whenever he flashes on screen. It’ll be wonderful watching him collect all his awards.

Catherine Zeta-Jones also shows strong signs there may well indeed be an actress under her features. Her role is one of almost terror as you watch her so easily slip into her imprisoned hubby’s shoes. The ease of transformation is startling, but in an “evil begets evil” kind of fashion. The fact that she’s pregnant through the entire movie only makes the shift from loving house wife to drug smuggler more chilling.

The entire cast does credible acting performances with particular attention paid toward the younger actors deservingly. Don Cheadle throws in another terrific performance showing he’s sublimely one of the best actors around today.

Traffic oversteps its ambitions and aims for a scope far too large. It is based on a 6 hour BBC mini-series, so trying to cram that material into a two hour plus format is taxing. As a result we get an assembly of characters, but too many with too little time in between to do any justice. Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Rules of Engagement) condenses the towering impact and influence drugs have well enough, but he intercuts the stories too sporadically that attachment never builds for either of the three narratives. He does balance the Douglas Drug Czar one carefully as not to fall into the cliched vigilante metamorphosis. But the mini-series had more characterization and depth to its tale.

Traffic is a good film but it has edges of greatness never fully visioned. Soderbergh shines bright yet again and all accolades will be deserved. Traffic is undeniably a good film, but it’s one you may not want to watch a second time.

Nate’s Grade: B

Frequency (2000)

I’ll make a confession here. I could’ve been at the national premier for this but decided not to because the premise and especially the trailer put me off so much, I was being very prejudiced. Now that I bit the bullet and ponied up to see the thing I’m so ashamed for those same prejudices. Frequency is a very creative film with some rather touching father-son moments of its own. Director Gregory Hoblit has swiftly directed the film and rescues it when it has the idea of a father/son team up in two different times to track down a serial killer. What you think should veer into cheap melodrama or gimmick stays true through the course. Frequency is a light-hearted, sentimental, yet engaging and worthwhile film I’m very glad to have seen.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Any Given Sunday (1999)

Oliver Stone is a seamstress of visuals and visceral noise. Any Given Sunday is perfect as he delves into the professional world of football and how it becomes a dance of testosterone and fury. But after awhile all the audience feels is a pounding and a ringing in its ears.

The biggest stumbling block may actually be its focal point – there’s too much football! The games last as long as actual games and there are multiple games through out. Though Stone captures the essence nicely that these spandex-clad athletes are the gladiators of today playing in a ballet of chaos, he just throws too many jangled cuts, quick shots, and extreme angles flashing around to hyper-decibel soundtrack fodder. After a while the viewer becomes dizzied by the rush of noise and flash of lights buzzing around their precious skull. It’s enough to cause a concussion simply from watching.

]Most of the action in Any Given Sunday actually happens off the field with some meaty drama delivered by multiple players. Stone focuses in on the people behind the catches and blocks and how the game can control or transform their lives. Finally a drawn-out story that covers football with respect. Diaz and Pacino get into screaming matches for roughly most of the movie, but it’s exciting to see two great actors throw the acting medicine ball back and forth trying to out-duel the one before. The supporting characters all have stories suitable to the game and interesting enough to warrant attention. Jaime Foxx has a nonchalant magnetism that keeps the audience pulling for him even after he vomits for the third time on camera.

Stone lets the viewer into the game of football in a manner truthful yet exaggerated. But with all the whiz-bang he throws out in Any Given Sunday one can’t help but have wished for more constraint in the excess and more minutes for the drama in between.

Nate’s Grade: B-

%d bloggers like this: