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Brigsby Bear (2017)/ Dave Made a Maze (2017)

One way to stand out in a crowded marketplace is to differentiate your movie by making it weird and whimsical. Just being different can grab your attention, and Brigsby Bear and Dave Made a Maze are definitely different. Both of these indie films attracted attention for their unusual concepts and lo-fi designs, banking on a sense of nostalgia for a homemade style of art that’s a little rough around the edges. These might be two of the strangest films that will be released in 2017.

James (Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney) is living underground with his parents, April (Jane Adams) and Ted (Mark Hamil). He does his homework, listens to his parents about never going outside, and anxiously waits every new episode of Brigsby Bear, a children’s fantasy TV show starring a Teddy Ruxbin-looking bear that teaches life lessons. Eventually we discover that April and Ted are not, in fact, James’ parents. They abducted him when he was a baby. The FBI raids their compound and returns James to his biological family, the Popes (Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins as mom and dad, Ryan Simpkins as younger sis). James just wants to know when the next episode of Brigsby will come out. Unfortunately for James, Brigsby isn’t real. Ted produced the show on a nearby sound stage. He’d even occasionally hire other actors. James is the world’s most knowledgeable fan of a TV show no other person knows one iota about. He’s determined to give it a proper ending and recruits family, friends, and neighbors to make the ultimate Brigsby movie.

I was pleasantly surprised at how effectively Brigsby Bear was at being cheery and sincere. I was expecting, given the premise, an ironic riff on nerd culture or obsessive fandom, and Mooney and company instead decided to play things very seriously. They take a fantastic premise that seems begging for derisive commentary and choose to find a human story within the absurd. That’s much more commendable and harder to achieve. As I’m aging, I’m becoming more and more appreciative of sincerity over irony (part of this is also that our modern age is inundated with irony). I was reminded of last year’s Swiss Army Man, an alarmingly strange movie with Harry Potter’s farting corpse and went for sincerity without any whiff of detached irony. Brigsby Bear isn’t at the same level of artistic accomplishment and lasting power as Swiss Army Man, but it’s an unconventional and touching movie that earns its quirky-yet-feel-good emotions.

It’s easy to see where this story could have exclusively dwelt in psychological darkness. James was abducted as a child and raised in a strange environment that makes him emotionally stunted and grossly ill prepared for the real world outside his reclusive safe space. The movie could have understandably dealt with James’ crippling sense of loneliness, betrayal, and inability to assimilate since his sense of self were cultivated by a fake children’s TV show. He could have easily been the creepy oddball who makes people uncomfortable. Instead, they made him the goofy oddball who makes people smile. His childlike sense of wonder is in tact and frees him from self-doubt. James is remarkably cheery for having his world turned upside down, and the movie follows his lead. This movie could have been another perplexing Dogtooth and instead it’s more accurately reminiscent of those old Mickey Rooney “we’re putting on a show” pictures. I was waiting for a moment of artificial conflict, a darker plot turn late into the film where perhaps it’s revealed that Ted was a molester. There’s 700 episodes of Brigsby Bear so I figured a few of them would reveal disturbing clues about something even worse. The film never does take that darker turn and instead stays upbeat to the very end.

As he adjusts to his new home, the movie serves as both a delayed coming-of-age movie and a love letter to the power of creativity and how it can build community. With James transported into the outside world, much is made over his awkwardness with human interactions and his complete lack of guile. He gets his first kiss with a girl, and shortly after his first handjob, and wonders if that means they have to get married. It’s a sweetly naïve reflection. We watch the growing pains of James as he starts to make friends and become more confident in himself, which is a surefire way to win over an audience. James isn’t held up for ridicule. People want to be part of his project. He’s overcoming adversity and triumphing through the transformative power of art. There’s a joy in watching characters find themselves anew, and James serves as the catalyst. This person knows how to do special effects. This person used to act when they were in college. In his heartfelt attempt to provide closure to the Brigsby series, and possibly a chapter in his life, James’ project takes on a life of its own that brings people together. It shows how the community of art can be an empowering venture that can freely inspire the best in others.

The movie doesn’t become overly reliant upon nostalgia either. I figured it would be an ode to 80s television and culture but it really just uses that as backdrop. The world building of the show of Brigsby is bizarre and entertaining every time it’s included, especially when you comprehend the propaganda messages that Ted is sneaking in like, “Curiosity is an unnatural emotion.” The sense of wonder and whimsy doesn’t overwhelm the movie and its poignancy. Director Dave McCary (Saturday Night Live) makes the most of the retro pastiches while still serving the story. James could just have easily been obsessed with any show or ongoing work of art. The content of the show is unimportant. It’s about facilitating his growth into a person comfortable and confident with whom they are. By the end of the film, I was fighting back tears as the full assembly of characters watches the finished product of their labor. You watch them smile, laugh, take a sense of pride in their communal efforts, and they can see the world as James does. It’s a whole-heartedly pleasurable movie with surprising currents of emotional uplift.

With Dave Made a Maze, the titular Dave (a beardless Nick Thune) is lost in a maze that he built in the apartment he shares with his beleaguered girlfriend, Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani). This maze consists of a cluster of cardboard boxes taped together. In time, a group of their friends and even strangers have assembled to admire the maze. Dave warns them not to enter but they do so anyway, and once inside they realize that the maze is considerably bigger and byzantine, and everyone expectedly gets lost. Annie and a documentary crew travel (lead by James Urbaniak) deep into the maze to rescue Dave. They all must confront booby traps, a Minotaur, thirty-something existential ennui, and the unsettling realization that the maze is expanding all on its own.

The real star of Dave Made a Maze is the fantastical environment inside the maze. The resourcefulness, imagination, and implementation of such a bizarre vision on such a limited budget is incredible. Each new room offers a new opportunity for the surreal. The characters stumble from room to room in mixtures of awe and bemusement, and the audience will feel the exact same way. Production designers Trisha Gum and John Sunner, and Art Director Jeff White, come from a world of animation, and they’re meticulous attention to detail pays off to an astonishing degree. In a just world, they would be nominated for an Oscar. There’s a DIY inventiveness that carries an irresistible charm with it, re-purposing everyday items to create a unique and whimsical world. Even when people are being gored to death and dismembered it adheres to the whimsical tone. The blood is replaced by red yarn, confetti, and silly string. The movie smartly underplays the lack of consistent logic within the world of the maze, and so weird things can just happen at a moment’s notice, like the main characters turning into puppet versions of themselves made out of paper lunch bags. There’s even a half-finished maze within the maze, which draws derision from the tired and frustrated people just seeking a way out. Some of the weirdness feels too half-formed and self-conscious, but the movie has an Eternal Sunshine quality where each new location provides another enjoyable opportunity for potential discovery.

Where Dave Made a Maze runs into problems is when you realize there isn’t anything beyond that sense of invention. There isn’t a larger thematic core to this movie and the characters remain, at best, background players elevated to starting status. Most of these characters are jokes but they don’t even supply much in the way of jokes. The closet to a substantive theme is simply an arrested development fable where the man-child is struggling to finish a laboring artistic accomplishment, he feels humbled and humiliated, and his strained relationship with his accommodating girlfriend will always come together in the clincher. Dave lashes out that he didn’t feel like an adult at 30, so maybe he retreated to the halcyon days of childhood, or maybe it was a nostalgic retreat. Whatever the case may be, the movie suffers from an inevitable lull once the giddy novelty of its DIY fantasy starts to wear off. There’s one sequence where Dave and Annie have a circular conversation that just keeps going, and I’m sure if the filmmakers weren’t so desperate for material that it would have been trimmed down significantly.

Even at 76 minutes before credits, this is a movie that feels stretched beyond the limit because it’s lacking greater consideration to story. There are jokes that feel like they should be funnier too, like a latecomer to the maze who sets off the traps that Dave warns about earlier. This should be a fun structural payoff, allowing us to see both sides of the rooms. It doesn’t really work out that way, and the bumbling latecomer becomes another relatively unmemorable and undeveloped body on screen taking up space. The documentary crew conveys some mild satire as the crew leader keeps prodding others into saying what he needs for his movie, but even this inclusion feels more like a transparent device to get the characters to talk through plot points. Another misfire is the curious lack of stakes. The movie has a light-hearted charm but then doesn’t ever quite make up its mind on the danger being confronted. Real friends die for real. By the end of the movie, they do not come back even after the maze is kaput. They are really dead. Yet the film plays the stakes at a low simmer and the survivors just sort of shrug and move on. The film gives me little reason to be attached to any of these people, alive or dead.

Whimsy is a fleeting feeling that’s hard to conceive and harder to hold onto. Both movies take whimsical premises that cater to the peculiar but only one delivers something of lasting substance. Brigsby Bear is a charming, heartfelt, and exceedingly sincere movie about an oddball finding his place in the world through the power of the creative process. He is transformed through his love of art and how that serves as the foundation for community. Whereas Dave Made a Maze is a lo-fi curio that I can admire more than enjoy. It’s missing crucial elements that make its journey worth the effort, beside its imaginative and scrappy production design. Both movies are charged by the power of the imagination to transport the ordinary into the extraordinary. Brigsby remembers to use its flights of imagination and whimsy to tell an engaging and ultimately touching story. Dave Made a Maze has cool sets and some infectious silliness. If you see one story of a man-child escaping into a world of nostalgic imagination and inviting friends to tag along, make it Brigsby, a film that uses whimsy to still tell compelling human stories.

Nate’s Grades:

Brigsby Bear: A-

Dave Made a Maze: C+

Heaven is For Real (2014)

heaven-is-for-real-posterChristian movies have been lighting up the U.S. box-office this year. First there was Son of God, which opened at over $30 million dollars for what is essentially a retread of what people could see for free on TV. Then there was Noah, the Biblical epic given a new life with modern special effects magic. Then the little indie that could, God’s Not Dead, which continues to hang around the box-office, collecting astonishing sums. Now in time for Easter is Heaven is For Real based upon the best-selling book of the same name. Adapted and directed by Randall Wallace (Secretariat, Braveheart), the film manages to be emotional, earnest, and efficient, even despite not really having the elements needed to be called a film.

Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is the pastor for a small town in rural Nebraska. He and his wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly) are struggling to pay the bills and care for their two children, Cassie (Lane Styles) and Colton (Connor Corum). One fateful day, Colton is rushed to the hospital with a burst appendix. He makes it through the operation. Afterwards, he tells his family the amazing news that while unconscious he visited heaven. The Burpos are ready to dismiss their son’s experience as a response common to those who went through near-death experiences, except little Colton never died on the operating table. Todd is unsure what to do with his son’s information, including key knowledge that he has no Earthly way of knowing. The members of Todd’s church worry about trusting the child’s account, and are wary of the media circus, and may just hire a new pastor for all the trouble caused by Colton’s confession.

heaven-is-for-real-burpo-sonKinder and gentler, here is a movie that has an inclusive, positive message executed with earnest conviction. The drama isn’t subtle but it can be effective. The music rises, the actors crinkle their faces and get tears in their eyes, and you’re left feeling like there’s something in your own eye. It may be manipulative in some sense but it’s so well executed, and without any hint of pretension or agenda, that I really didn’t mind. It’s a heartfelt movie that could fervently inspire the masses that pack the theater. I’d much rather have any Christian consumers, or the curious, check out this well-meaning movie than the mean-spirited and spurious God’s Not Dead. This movie actually allows its characters to feel like regular people who exist in our world. Todd and Sonja have a sex life, and the Burpo family doesn’t just sing famous Christian tunes in the car, they’ll shout Queen at the top of their lungs. In other words, they’re a fairly normal Midwestern family, and I appreciated that the movie didn’t feel the need to sanctify them. The supporting characters also have dollops of depth to them, at least in the hands of actors like Thomas Haden Church (so wonderfully deadpan) and Margo Martindale (her sorrow fermenting into bitterness). Heaven is for Real is anchored by two strong performances by Kinnear (The Last Song) and Reilly (Flight) as the parents. Both of these actors get a wealth of emotions to play, a few crying scenes, one angry outburst, and they sell it all, never overplaying the emotions of the scene, gently grounding the film with compassion.

I suppose in some capacity this film could be the more religious version of The Sixth Sense. It’s about a gifted child who sees things others cannot and who battles with being taken seriously by the scolding adults. We know that he’s going to say something he should not know, the adults would gasp and say, “How did you know that? There’s no possible way,” and then we’ll repeat this process. It reminded me of when young Haley Joel Osment finally gets through to his mother when he tells her that grandma saw her dance and is proud of her. Just add a dash of non-denominational Christianity.

The problem is that there really isn’t a movie here. Heaven is For Real is comforting and earnest, but there just isn’t a story here that translates into the structure and form of a film, and it shows. First off, there really isn’t much in the way of authentic conflict here. After Colton is saved, the only real conflict is whether to believe what he experienced. This setup could work in the scheme of a movie if his parents were not believers; thus their arc is one that goes from disbelief to belief. However, the movie already begins with the Burpos as good Christian folk. Todd is the town’s pastor for crying out loud, so you’d think he wouldn’t be troubled with his own set of doubts. These are also rather good people. In the opening scenes, despite being behind on bills, Todd refuses to charge someone for his garage-repair services and accepts free carpet instead. In the end, when Todd is preaching and talking about his own journey and how prideful he was back at the start, I’m left wondering what he’s talking about. I suppose he didn’t have to try and run to third base in that church softball game, but is that really all we have to go on? Would staying on second symbolize his lack of faith? What I’m saying is that the Burpos don’t really travel on a character arc, so their squabbles over their son feel forced. More so, the struggles with Todd’s church feel the most inauthentic. I just don’t get it. The pastor’s kid says he went to heaven, and the congregation has members that are mad, but mad at what? Should the pastor, who preaches about heaven for a living, dispute his son, especially when the boy possesses extraordinary knowledge? I don’t understand what the conflict is here and neither does the movie, which doesn’t really adhere to a three-act structure, and just sort of ends without much preparation. People just believe. End. Why did it take this long? It’s not like these people are stone-cold atheists.

heaven-is-a-young-boyIt’s that lacking sense of urgency, let alone goals or a central through line, which makes me question how Heaven is For Real spends its time. Why does the movie choose to spend as much time on scenes that don’t seem to matter? The first act is spent with such dramatic moments as… Todd playing softball and breaking his leg (the one thing that pushes the film into PG material). And from that… a completely unrelated kidney stone infection. Then from there… the family takes a trip to the Denver zoo. I was getting restless myself that this kid was never going to get to heaven. I kept waiting for these moments to have consequence, like how the Burpo kids fall ill after visiting the zoo. Aha, it must be connected to the zoo (monkey pox!). Nope, it’s his appendix rupturing. Very little of the pre-heavenly visit looks to have any bearing on the overall plot, instead providing texture to the family life. I suppose Todd passing the kidney stones was meant to be a comedic excursion (Church says the average is passing 15 stones – that is too insane for me to believe at face value). Why kind of hours does Todd have for his family when he’s a minister, a full-time job, repairs garage doors as a second job, then volunteers as a firefighter AND coaches a high school wrestling team? He’s got way too much on his plate but objects to the idea of his wife getting a job. What purpose does Todd seeing a psychiatrist on short notice serve other than allowing an externalization of his internal doubts? I’ll let that one slide, but they never come back to the psychiatrist. Too much of the movie feels like padding and stalling until the non-conflict reaches its end.

Wallace also shows a lack of faith in his own audience. By choosing to visualize the heavenly sequences, though brief they are, the movie risks being goofy, as whatever man can derive will never be comparable. If the whole movie is about whether or not to accept Colton’s story on faith, why do we have to have dramatizations of his story? Isn’t that cheating? The heavenly sequences don’t really add much oomph to the story any way. Colton goes to church, watches vaguely humanoid angels bathed in light hover and sing. He asks them to play “We Will Rock You.” The angels laugh but they don’t play the classic Queen rock song/universal sports anthem. Is it a matter of taste, angels? Who doesn’t like Queen? Then Jesus shows up and walks Colton outside. Other than a visual glimpse of Colton hugging his dead sister, that’s it. The other issue with depicting heaven onscreen, or something close to it, is that we can start picking it apart. Just ask Peter Jackson and his miscalculated Lovely Bones. If everyone is young in heaven, as Colton observes, then do we get a say in what our prime age is? I personally think George Clooney is a more handsome man as he ages than back in his E.R. days. And why does Jesus have to dress in the standard robes and sandals of 2000 years ago? Couldn’t he wear something more casual? Just imagine: Jesus relaxing in the pajama jeans. Then there’s Colton coming across his departed sister, who died at eight months, but is represented by a 6-8-year-old girl. Does this mean she’s going to be like that for eternity? Does she not get to choose to be an adult? See what I mean about picking it apart?

Its heart is in the right place, its message is inclusive and positive, and ultimately Heaven is For Real preaches about making life on Earth just as significant as the one after, and so I can say that the film is a relatively inoffensive and effective drama. It isn’t enough to say heaven is for real; the movie challenges the audience to do more. It doesn’t go overboard into maudlin territory, though it comes close enough with some of the wistful child acting. There really isn’t much of a movie here, and some of the choices seem to backfire, but it’s saved by its sense of earnestness, compassion, and some above average acting. Amidst the glut of evangelical movies this spring, I’d recommend Heaven is For Real above the rest (I’m excluding Noah from this list). It’s a thoroughly nice movie, and a film that should inspire its core audience, but in a good way, unlike God’s Not Dead. I can’t exactly say that this is a movie that needed to be made, especially from the cut-and-dry source material, but there’s a level of skepticism and reality imposed on what could easily be transformed into a blunt outreach piece. Even though the outcome is never in doubt, there’s an intelligence to the craft here that is much appreciated. Heaven is For Real may not be a great movie, but it works well enough as a movie when it shouldn’t, and that’s enough of a success in my book.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

Anchorman2_PosterA lot has changed in the nine years since the raucous, instantly quotable, and deeply silly hit comedy, Anchorman. Steve Carell, Will Ferrell, and Paul Rudd have all become big stars (sorry Dave Koechner), producer Judd Apatow has become a comedy empire unto himself, and director Adam McKay has gone on to helm several other hit Ferrell collaborations. As much as I loved Anchorman, and I unabashedly do, I was nervous about a sequel capturing the same magic. While Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues cannot be as good as its predecessor; my worries were mainly unfounded because this is still the funniest movie of the year. Simply put, if you’re a fan of the original, you’ll find enough to enjoy, possibly even love, with this latest chapter. The laughs-to-minute ratio is pretty high, as long as you don’t mind some scenic detours. The plot is much looser this time with several competing storylines that come in and out of focus. There are segments that could have been cut completely, like Ron’s bout with blindness, but I laughed enough that I never minded. But that ending 15 minutes is where the filmmakers drop any pretension of reality and double down on absurdity. It’s no surprise that those last crazy 15 minutes were my favorite. The cast is universally strong together, working off one another’s comedic styles so effortlessly, but the plot is very much a kitchen sink approach. I’m happy that Ferrell and McKay, co-writers again (though it’s hard to credit a collaborative improv), didn’t feel the need to recycle many jokes from the first film, reliving their old hits for fans hungry for instant nostalgia. Anchorman 2 is the same brilliantly broad comedy and absurdist dada experiment every loyal fan was hoping for. Give the gift of Ron Burgandy this holiday season and stay classy, America.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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-

The Last Song (2010)

Miley Cyrus is tragically miscast and way out of her depths in this mawkish drivel. I don’t really understand the appeal of Billy Ray Cyrus’ achy-breaky star progeny. The girl’s all teeth. Her acting repertoire from her gigantically popular Disney TV series and movies has lead Cyrus to the motto that bigger is better. She plays every scene much louder and bigger than required, mistaking volume for drama. I don’t think (right now at least) that she has the acting capabilities to carry a drama, let alone a drama weighed down by so much overly serious, heavy-handed material. But then heavy-handed is a Nicholas Sparks trademark, same with someone dying of a terminal disease by film’s end (the streak continues). What’s remarkable about The Last Song‘s ineptitude is that Sparks wrote the screenplay and the novel at the same time, tailoring it specifically for Cyrus. The part was written with her in mind, which makes the failure even larger. Cyrus cannot do teenage angst to save her life. If you wanted a moody, angst-driven, hip-to-be-square, believable young actress, then they should have hired Kat Dennings (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist). Cyrus is a troubled teen who mopes all summer, forced to spend time with her divorced father (Greg Kinnear, fighting to find some dignity in the film) before, well, you can guess where we’re headed. For melodrama, it all comes across as fairly dull and sterile (PG-13: wrestling in mud, PG: throwing mud). What’s even worse is that the titular “last song” Cyrus performs to honor a fallen loved one is powerfully bland. And yet I have the sneaking suspicion this stab at expanding Cyrus into adult roles could have been much worse. As it is, The Last Song is a sudsy dud.

Nate’s Grade: C

Green Zone (2010)

I have noticed that I’ve really been dragging my feet when it comes to writing a Green Zone review. I’ve prioritized it only to have something more necessary (catching up on VH1 reality shows) come to the forefront of my attention span. It’s not like the movie is bad. It may have been misleadingly advertised as Jason Bourne’s tour of Iraq, bringing back together Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy), but it’s not bad. It’s a perfectly fine movie, except in this instance, given the politically explosive and monumentally relevant subject matter, “perfectly fine” sounds like a missed opportunity. This movie should be incendiary, shocking, aggravating, enlightening, and if it happens to be entertaining then that ain’t bad either. The subject matter –the false rationale for war, WMDs– deserves a sober examination. Green Zone is not that movie. Green Zone is about uncovering and righting the mistakes of the Iraq War, and I believe I figured out what keeps Green Zone from being a better, more powerful, more engaging movie — it fictionalizes a story that is already wroth telling. This is a true story that could have stood well on its own merits.

Shortly after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) is on the hunt for those weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the chief argument for invading Iraq. His team investigates suspected weapons sites but they keep coming up empty. The intelligence appears to be in sharp contrast with the reality on the ground. Miller butts heads with shady government officials (Greg Kinnear) and finds aid in a state department realist (Brendan Gleeson) and a reporter (Amy Ryan) who put her reputation at stake parroting the government intelligence as fact. The Iraqi army is disbanded and now the former generals under Saddam Hussein are conferring what the next steps should be. General Al Rawi (Yigal Naor, who played Saddam in a TV mini-series) is waiting for the Americans to extend a hand, and if not then they will become an insurrection. Miller is racing to track down Al Rawi because he knows the truth in the lead up to the war, which is why those shady government officials are also trying to kill him.

Based upon reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Life Inside the Green Zone, the filmmakers have resorted to a fictional narrative informed by the real events. My biggest gripe is this: the true story is far more interesting, complicated, and relevant than concocting a story about one military man’s search for answers. The film is laid out like a conspiracy thriller, where our hero gains a small sliver of information that leads to another piece, and another and another, until finally a picture emerges. I get it. With Damon as a soldier, the audience has an obvious rotting point, a protagonist who we can easily be labeled as good. And then when he uncovers the truth, and alerts the media, it provides a tidy, satisfying end for the movie. Except that’s not what happened. In the real world, the hunt for those phantom WMDs carried on for months, and the news trickled drip by drip. There were no smoking guns, no white knights to shine the light of truth (Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame might be the closest in consideration), and there wasn’t anything as conclusive as a military officer writing a report and sending it the mainstream media.

Green Zone attempts to craft a satisfying close to the WMD hunt, and likewise the war itself. This is nothing more than revisionist wish fulfillment, wanting to insert a hero of conscious and ability during a time where we had a malaise of responsibility from those in the realms of higher command. And just to make sure they don’t make too many waves, Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) wrap their crusading character in the uniform of America’s finest, making it difficult to criticize his noble hunt, striping away politics. The trouble is that the Bush Administration rarely made apolitical decisions; everything was steeped in politics, even the truth about weapons of mass destruction. So Green Zone does the audience a disservice by trying to play nice, setting up a villainous fictional straw man, and forgoing naming the names of those that led this country astray. Because of placing the film’s point of view squarely with Miller, we never get to examine the bigger picture, the manipulations and machinations that led to war. We are stuck in a very limited focus of finding the WMDs.

Now, I must ask whether or not I’m unfairly judging the movie. Hollywood has often taken fascinating and momentous true-life stories and redirected them toward fiction. Green Zone is certainly a technically proficient film. Greengrass’ trademark shaky camera is ever vigilant, always roving and looking for the action; although in a realistic war setting, the kinetic handheld camerawork can come across as potentially hyperactive. Conversations between two people can come across like intense linguistic battles. Walks down hallways can appear to be speedy jaunts brimming with purpose and anxiety. The tension just doesn’t materialize. Without a nervy story, the Greengrass visual staple can seem over the top, antsy, nervous, and also annoying. This is one narrative for Greengrass that could have improved by the dedicated use of a tripod.

Green Zone is not Bourne at all. The Universal marketing team was trying to hoodwink the public into seeing an Iraq War movie. Damon isn’t as polished and in command as Bourne. Those who argue that Green Zone is anti-American or anti-troops are grossly missing the point. Reactionary, bellicose rhetoric, without a wit of substance, is part of the reason the U.S. is currently in Iraq. You can argue against policy, including war policy, and still be considered a patriot. Patriotism is not synonymous with warmongering. It’s too bad that the filmmakers felt that the true story wasn’t good enough to be told, instead settling for a decent if unmemorable political thriller. This adaptation takes the most significant foreign policy event in modern American history, one where the ramifications will be felt for over a generation, and clears all the hard-boiled details to attach a conventional one-man-fights-for-truth tale. It’s hard to get self-righteous when the movie keeps trying to cover its own ass.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Baby Mama (2008)

2008 is becoming a year dominated by Tina Fey. She won three Emmys for her Best Comedy TV series 30 Rock, including writing and acting, and her dead-on portrayal of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has branded the public perception of this political figure. Baby Mama is a mildly entertaining comedy that works because of the finely honed chemistry between Fey and her former Saturday Night Live co-star, Amy Poehler. The movie is at its best when these two women can play off one another. The banter isn’t laugh-out-loud funny but provokes plenty of smiles and chuckles. The movie goes in an unforeseen direction in the third act that attempts to raise the stakes through drama, but it feels like a disappointing direction for what is essentially a female buddy comedy. The jokes flow at a steady pace and the movie has a great supporting cast of big names that know how to leave their mark, like Steve Martin as a daffy New Age CEO and Sigourney Weaver as a amazingly fertile boss.

Nate’s Grade: B

Ghost Town (2008)

It seems the genesis for this flick was like someone asked what The Sixth Sense would be like with jokes (or someone rented Topper and said, “Why not again?”). The idea of a misanthropic man who sees dead people is elevated by the sheer comic genius of star Ricky Gervais. The famous British comedian is better known across the pond for his dry, sarcastic wit and penchant for awkward, pained comedy, but Ghost Town is a great mainstream introduction to the comedic chops of this squat Englishman. The film follows a familiar trajectory and even introduces a romance for the man who loathes other people, but Gervais and co-writer/director David Koepp make it worthwhile and endearing. I could watch Gervais and his beaming co-star Tea Leoni crack each other up for hours. The comedic premise is finely explored (there are more than enough scenes of people looking odd at Gervais talking to himself). The movie tilts toward being a supernatural romantic comedy in the second half but manages to stay snappy and character-driven. It’s a sweet movie with some nice comic jabs that don’t dwell on nastiness. Ghost Town is a charming and engaging light comedy that might cause a few sniffles in between chuckles. I have a warm place in my heart for this movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Slowly but surely, Little Miss Sunshine is gaining momentum as the breakout comedy of the summer. It’s gotten some of the most glowing reviews of the year and is poised to capture the hearts of not just fans of indie cinema but also patrons of the big suburban multiplexes, your red state soccer moms and NASCAR dads. After having seen Little Miss Sunshine, I feel like I must have missed the bandwagon.

Little Olive (Abigail Breslin) is bursting with shriek-worthy excitement. She just found out she’s a regional contestant in the national Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant. Her family crams into a beaten down, canary yellow Volkswagen bus and heads off on a cross-state journey for Olive. Along for the ride are Olive’s fractured family — older brother (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence until he becomes a fighter pilot, stressed-out but supportive mom (Toni Collette), ambitious self-help failure dad (Greg Kinnear), a potty-mouthed, heroin-snorting grandpa (Alan Arkin), and a suicidal gay uncle (Steve Carell). It’s a long road to the pageant, especially with such an eclectic group of people whose only thing in common are their chromosomes.

I just couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling that Little Miss Sunshine should be more. It’s not really much of a comedy. There are some funny moments, and pushing the bus is a running gag with better legs than I would have guessed, but the film has a lot of stretches where the laughs are low to nonexistent. It’s not really much of a character piece either. None of the characters are that well defined or allowed to stretch out. The family members are all archetypes of indie film weirdness: the gay intellectual, the verbally inappropriate grandparent, the self-deluded father, the frazzled mother, the loner brother, and the precocious tyke. Little Miss Sunshine does a fine job of setting up its family of cracked characters but then seems to twiddle its thumbs when it comes to development. The only character insights come in a scattered few small moments with Olive. Dad is essentially poisoning his family with his self-help claptrap, casting the world into “winners” and “losers.” There’s a heartfelt moment brilliantly played Breslin where she confesses to grandpa that she doesn’t want to be a loser because her dad would stop loving her. Aside from that, Little Miss Sunshine seems to wind its characters up and then leave them be. I wanted more of just about everything but the movie wouldn’t budge.

The movie spends quite arguably too much time at the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Child beauty pageants are a well deserved, albeit easy, satirical punching bag, and they creep the hell out of me. Seriously, turning little girls into highly sexualized Barbie dolls seems cruel, unnatural, and very very creepy to me. There was a stupendous documentary that aired on HBO years ago called Living Dolls that traced the life of a six-year-old girl and her stage mother. It was a harrowing film, and the obsessive mother is one of the most disturbing villains I’ve ever seen in a movie, scripted or otherwise. In the film you see how people transform little girls into flirty, overly made-up little adults. It’s sickening.

The reason I bring this up is because Little Miss Sunshine because they lift a direct metaphor. In Living Dolls the main girl is playing one of those tiny slide puzzles where the finished result is an honest to God yellow smiley face. It’s a perfect metaphor of this child attempting to find happiness when no one seems to want her to live as a child. And then I saw the exact same moment in Little Miss Sunshine. Rip-off or accidental homage, you decide. In the same vein, every time Kinnear invokes the name of his literary agent, Stan Grossman, I kept thinking of Fargo.

In Sunshine, the family is aghast at the pageant scene but support Olive anyway. Then things get way too easy. The film concludes with the 5,785th rendition of the weirdos celebrating what makes them who they are, their weirdness, and sticking it to the thumb-nosing naysayers. Then the movie abruptly ends. That’s all, folks. Little Miss Sunshine was already built on the aching backs of two very familiar indie staples, dysfunctional families and road trips, and offers little else to justify its existence.

It’s hard to really drag this film through the mud. It was proficiently made by the music video directing team of Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris (Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight Tonight). The acting is generally good. The better actors rise to the top despite their limited character depth. Carell is a big name in comedy right now, and he gives a rather subdued, sarcastic performance that will resonate best with audiences. Kinnear is better at playing smug types than pathetic types. His character really is the villain of the piece, so it’s nice to see his transformation even if it is awfully spontaneous. Collette always looks to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Breslin (Signs) is pretty cute and will pierce your heart during the aforementioned talk with grandpa.

There are some amusing moments and fun pieces of dialogue, and the film has its heart in the right place. The screenplay needed to go through a few more drafts to strengthen character and story. I can honestly say my favorite part of Little Miss Sunshine was listening to its very Sufjan Stevens-like soundtrack full of meloncholic horns, cellos, violins, squeezebox and electronic whispers. I would recommend the soundtrack ahead of the movie.

I feel some shades of guilt as I gather my opinion, however I cannot deny the overwhelming urge that Little Miss Sunshine should have been more. It needed more comedy, more character depth, more attention to story, and more opportunity for its ensemble of actors to sink their teeth into the material. This appointed indie darling is intermittingly amusing, has some laughs, and may be worth a free afternoon or as a rental. To me, it’s also a big example of wasted potential. Little Miss Sunshine is a beauty that needs more work before it can shine on a greater stage.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Matador (2005)

This is an adequate movie that doesn’t really resonate because at its heart it feels like a lot of interesting ideas and characters that are languished with a sitcom plot. I never thought Pierce Brosnan’s performance as the aging hit man was as funny as the film thought it was. The Matador is actually a more interesting movie than funny or amusing. The movie doesn’t go deep enough; the story isn’t as refined as it could be, and there are so few set pieces that this flick could have worked as a play. The end feels a bit too tidy and asks Greg Kinnear’s ordinary husband character to act out of character. There?s an extended talk in The Matador between Kinnear and his wife and Brosnan upon his unexpected visit, and it feels like a sitcom like the wacky neighbor next door has come over and hatched a hilarious scheme. I enjoyed the characters but they really just sit and stew in a really weak story. The characters are richly drawn but have nowhere to go.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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