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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-

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The Incredibles (2004)

You’ve been there before. You know the drill. You’re staring up, mouth agape, at the multiplex’s list of new titles wondering what to see. It happens to the best of us. Who can you trust in these situations? Most people used to think they could trust Tom Hanks, but after his accent experimentation in The Ladykillers and The Terminal, not to mention his giant creepy mustache in The Polar Express (with accents!), that train of trust might have left the station. A lot of people felt they could trust an Oliver Stone movie, and, well, look how that turned out. No, moviegoers, the only trustworthy name that won’t let you down is Pixar. With hits like Toy Story and Finding Nemo you know that those computer wizards are looking out for you. Their newest work, The Incredibles, will keep Pixar alive in the moviegoer circle of trust.

The Incredibles takes place in a world where superheroes walk, run, jump in single bounds, and zip through the sky. They’re beloved and revered, with the super-strong Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) at the head of the pack. But then a fiend strikes more powerful than any dreaded super villain: litigation. A mountain of lawsuits pile up against superheroes, and the government disbands its programs and relocates all super-abled beings into new identities and homes.

Fifteen years later, Bob Parr, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible, has married Helen (Holly Hunter), a.k.a. Elastigirl, who can stretch her shape, which comes in handy keeping their two children in line. Dash (Spencer Fox) begs his parents to allow him to use his power of super speed, especially at his schools sports. Violet (Sarah Vowell), all long haired Goth angst, uses her power of invisibility to just disappear during school and other functions she feels she doesn’t fit. It seems the only member of the family fully adjusted and happy to a “normal” life is Jack Jack, the Parr’s infant son who may or may not develop super powers of his own. Bob feels crushed by the grind of office work and hiding what makes him and his family special. He escapes at nights with old friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and the two of them relive the good old days with attempted heroic acts. Helen catches on and they have a huge fight with the kids as witnesses. Helen explains to her family in the best way that she can that their days as superheroes are over. They have to adjust to a different life now.

Bob’s wanderlust is soon quenched when he receives a mysterious invitation from a beautiful, white-haired woman named Mirage. She offers Bob the chance to become Mr. Incredible once more, to use his gifts and abilities to stop a robot on the loose on some island. Bob leaps at the chance, hiding his ongoing super exploits from his wife, and regains a sense of purpose. He hasn’t been this happy in ages; however, it all comes to a head when he learns that Syndrome (Jason Lee), the one responsible for the run-amok robots, has other plans. Not only this, upon capture Mr. Incredible realizes that he has ties to Syndrome way back during one of his less-than-super moments.

Helen is shocked when she finds out what Bob’s been up to, but also partially relieved it’s not an affair. She visits their old costumer Edna Mode, whose glasses and black wig may be bigger than the rest of her shrimpy body. Edna has redesigned a team of superhero costumes, and with them in hand Helen becomes Elastigirl once more and takes Dash and Violet on a journey to save their father and become a family once more.

The Incredibles is a film bursting with entertainment. This is an explosion of imagination, of wit, of grand storytelling, that the audience should sit and soak up every loving and beautiful second of it.

The voice work is wonderful. I’m sure Disney execs were scratching their heads over Craig T. Nelson, but I cannot imagine anyone else that could deliver as much in the role. Hunter is excellent, as always, as a doting mother and crime fighter. Lee is great with a villainous role that has a lot more depth to it than near any live-action film. His verbal gymnastics are perfectly suited for a slighted super villain.

Writer/Director Brad Bird’s first feature was the 1999 masterpiece, The Iron Giant, which I consider the finest animated film of all time (you heard me, Walt). Bird’s first film was a masterful mixture of little boy fantasy, reality, strong characters, humor, and excuse-me-there’s-something-in-my-eye tenderness. I know many people who, after seeing The Iron Giant, say they were, “crying like they watched a puppy get hit in the face with a shovel.”

With this being said, my trust in Bird as a master storyteller is still there. The Incredibles is the first Pixar film concerning real people, not just toys, ants, fish, monsters, and, uh, more toys, and the results are astounding. This is a film rich in complexity, human insights, family warmth, and, again, realism. Bird has fully realized The Brady Bunch of superheroes. They feel just as flesh and blood as any characters I’ve seen in any film this year. They have desires, secrets, shame, guilt, anger, burdens, pride, and above all, love. I mean, how many animated films have an actual subplot involving marital suspicion? You won’t find that in The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie. When Elastigirl and the kids go off to save her heroic hubby, she has a sit-down with her children and warns them that, yes, death is very real, and that these people will indeed kill them if discovered (this is the first PG-rated Pixar film, by the way). It’s a great moment that reminds you how much you care for these people.

Bird’s imagination seems incomparable. He has a razor-sharp feel for comedy, like Elastigirl’s scene caught between several sliding doors or the lively, hysterical Edna Mode personality, but he also possesses the ingenuity for crafting some of the most exciting action sequences in a long time. The Incredibles has uncanny action scenes, set to Michael Giacchino (TV’s Lost) blazing jazz score, which should make the James Bond producers die from envy.

Bird has created a stupendous action film, a heartwarming family drama, a hilarious comedy, and a gorgeous film to watch. Movies rarely get this entertaining, but for Pixar, it’s all just part of the norm. I hope someday we don’t take Pixar’s accomplishments and staunch consistency for granted, because they aren’t just reinventing what animation can do, they’re also reinventing what films themselves can do. You can have all the accents you want Tom Hanks; I’ll gladly take The Incredibles and its bounty of offerings.

Nate’s Grade: A

Vanilla Sky (2001)

Talk about a film’s back story. Tom Cruise signed on to do a remake of the 1997 Spanish film Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) which was directed by Alejandro Amenabar. During the filming the romance between Cruise and Penelope Cruz (no relation) got a little hotter than expected onscreen and broke up his long-standing marriage to the luscious Nicole Kidman. At the time she was finishing filming The Others which is the second film by Amenabar. This, by the way, is much more interesting than Vanilla Sky unfortunately.

Cameron Crowe’s remake starts off promising enough with Tom Cruise running around an empty Times Square like a Twilight Zone episode. Afterwards the film begins to create a story that collapses under its own weight. David (Cruise) is a rich boy in control of a publishing empire inherited through his dear old deceased dad. He has the time to throw huge parties where even Spielberg hugs him, and even have crazy sex with crazy Cameron Diaz, whom he tells his best friend (Jason Lee) is his “f*** buddy.” David begins to see a softer side of life with the entrance of bouncy and lively Sophia (Cruz) and contemplates that he might be really falling in love for the first time. But this happiness doesn’t last long as jealous Diaz picks up David in her car then speeds it off a bridge killing her. Then things get sticky including David’s disfiguration, his attempts to regain that one night of budding love and a supposed murder that he committed.

Crowe is in over his head with this territory. His knack for wonderful exchanges of dialogue and the perfect song to place over a scene are intact, but cannot help him with this mess. Vanilla Sky is an awkward mish-mash of science fiction. The film’s protagonist is standoffish for an audience and many of the story’s so-called resolutions toward the end are more perfunctory than functional. The ending as a whole is dissatisfying and unimaginative. By the time the wonderful Tilda Swinton shows up you’ll likely either be asleep or ready to press the eject button yelling “cop out!”

Seeing Vanilla Sky has made me want to hunt for Amenabar’s Abre Los Ojos and see what all the hype was about, because if it is anything like its glossy American counterpart then I have no idea why world audiences went wild for it. I mean, it’s not like you can’t see a nude Cruz in other movies. She’s like the Spanish Kate Winslet.

Nate’s Grade: C

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)

Kevin Smith returns back to his comedy roots. No more movies with a message (Chasing Amy and Dogma) it’s back to good ole’ snowballing and stink palming. His latest, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, is like a giant thank-you card to all his fans that have made the man who he is today. It ties up the entire View Askew universe so Kevin can drift off into uncharted ventures of film making and not have to keep referencing the same damn characters. Plus there’s plenty of good-natured vulgarity to go around.

The plot of Jay and Silent Bob is nothing too heavy but seems to keep the film on a continuous pace, unlike the sometimes stagnant feel Mallrats had (what, they’re in one location for 90 minutes). It seems that after getting a restraining order at the Quick Stop on them, Jay and Silent Bob learn that Miramax is making a movie from a comic book that is in fact based off of them. Learned of the riches they could make they seek out the comic’s author Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck’s first appearance in the film) and demand a piece of the pie. Holden tells them that he long ago sold his right to his partner Banky Edwards (Jason Lee, in his second appearance in the film) and that there’s nothing they can do to stop the film. Jay suddenly gets the idea that if they stop the movie from ever getting made then they don’t have to worry. So off go our stoner duo on a mission to sabotage and satirize Hollywood.

Along the way are a hitch-hiker (George Carlin) advising the best way to get a ride is to go down in your morals, a confused nun (Carrie Fisher), the cast of Scooby Doo offering a ride (which will be 100x funnier than the feature film coming out this summer), a beautiful band of international diamond thieves (Eliza Dusku, Ali Larter, Jennifer Swalbach-Smith, Shannon Elizabeth), a rescued chimpanzee, a dogged Wildlife agent (Will Ferrell), and a full barrage of hilarity once Hollywood is finally hit.

The best barbs are laid out by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon bickering about the other’s film choices on the set of Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season. This moment is truly inspired and full of great humor from Gus van Sant too busy counting his money to yell action to Damon turning into a vigilante hero. I almost fell on the floor laughing during this sequence.

When Jay and Silent Bob hit Hollywood is when the comedy starts hitting its stride as this Jersey Greek chorus interacts with the Hollywood life and encounters many a celebrity. The jokes are usually right on target except for Chris Rock’s performance of a racism obsessed film director. Rock’s portrayal becomes grating to the moviegoer far before it’s over, though he does get a few choice lines.

Smith as a director has finally elevated his visual art into something that can sustain itself instead of his earlier just-hold-the-camera-and-shoot movies. There are pans, zooms, quick cuts, cranes, action sequences, and even CGI. Smith is evolving as an artist but still staying his “dick and fart joke” self, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is evidence. And that’s fine by me.

Nate’s Grade: B

Almost Famous (2000)

Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical 70s rock opus is like a gigantic hug. It’s warm, engrossing, feel good, and leaves you with a smile wishing for more. Almost Famous may be the best movie going experience of the year. You likely won’t have a better time from a movie.

Fresh-faced newcomer Patrick Fugit plays the 15 year-old version of Crowe who is a budding writer for Rolling Stone. He’s tapped to tour and send in a story on the fictional band Stillwater fronted by singer Jason Lee and guitarist Billy Crudup. Stillwater is everything the typical early 70s rock band was and should be: long hair, tight pants, and continuous inner turmoil and squabbling. Little Fugit captures all of this with wide-eyed exploration as he stretches away from his overprotective mother played by the lovely Frances McDormand. Phillip Seymour Hoffman also pops in to do a brilliant portrayal of music critic Lester Bangs. Kate Hudson shines in a break-out performance as a “band-aid” to Stillwater; which is an uncertain mix of naive groupie and musical muse. She’s together with fellow “band-aids” Anna Paquin and Faruiza Balk.

The writing of Almost Famous is textured and fully satisfying. The turns it takes down the road are expert and you know you are in the hands of a true artist. Crowe’s direction again makes leaps and bounds in improvement with every new feature. He and his wife wrote all of the songs the fictional band performs and it sounds like, to my ears, he had a few more job offerings he could have easily been suited for.

The acting is phenomenal with every cast member contributing nicely to the fold. Crudup is the anchor, Hudson is the gleaming star, Fugit is the tender surprise, Lee is the emotional lightening rod, and Frances is the mother that we all would love to have deep down inside. She is at the level that is most difficult for a parent: she must begin to let go so they live their own life, yet she’s raised him from harm since he could spew mashed carrots. Surely, if the world had justice Frances will be winning her second Oscar.

Almost Famous is a breathing work that borderlines perfection. It’s a great time to be had just sitting and experiencing what the movie has to offer.

Nate’s Grade: A

Dogma (1999)

In a time where simply having faith in anything, let alone religion, is scoffed at, Kevin Smith daringly and passionately expresses his personal search for answers and understanding. But while the zealots decree Dogma as blasphemy, what they truly miss is the biggest commercial for faith and God that American audiences have seen in decades of cinema.

The story of the religious epic causing all the hubbub begins with a pair of fallen angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) spurned from the pearly gates of Heaven and banished to Wisconsin. One discovers a re-dedication of a church imploring a little used Catholic practice of plenary indulgence allowing whoever to enter through the church’s arches to have their slate cleaned of all sin. The two seize this opportunity of a dogmatic loophole to sneak back into heaven. The only slight problem is that by doing so they reverse a decree of God and disprove the Almighty’s unfallability, and thus will wipe out all of existence. The voice of God (Alan Rickman) recruits a lapsed Catholic named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) for a Holy Crusade to halt the scheming angel’s plans for the good of the universe. Along the way she is aided by two unlikely prophets (the dynamic duo of Jay and Silent Bob), an racially discredited 13th Apostle (Chris Rock), and a shapely strip-teasing muse (Salma Hayek) as they engage with demons, seraphims, angles, and all sorts of celestial “who’s who” to stop the end of existence.

Smith’s direction has taken strides since the point-and-click days of his earlier works; however, there’s still an awkward flatness to his framing and action. Fiorentino, with her sexiy voice, plays the role of a grounded character well. Rickman as the bitter Brit shows why he can still take anyone toe-to-toe for acting chops. Affleck and Damon have terrific chemistry together and play off one another for great comedy. Jason Mewes has never been funnier as the terminally stoned and foul mouthed Jay. Rock shows he can restrain his abrasive personality. Salma shows… well she shows she can dance. Jason Lee as an air conditioning-adoring demon and George Carlin as a used car salesman type Catholic Cardinal are so commanding in their presence and excellent in their performances that it’s a sin most of their scenes were cut during editing. Even Alanis Morrisette works as a humanly childish God. She’s given no lines but expresses great feeling and humor anyway.

Dogma is rambunctiously hilarious and a never ending joyride of fun as it jumps from jokes about demons made of excrement to “Buddy Christs” to insightful and sensitive thoughts on religion. Rarely does it bore even with the large plot it must always keep in successive movement. The only drawback Dogma suffers from is the amount of religious points it desires to make. The characters will reach a subject, chat, then directly move on to the next. The sporadic nature can easily keep an audience’s head spinning, but is brought back down to gentle rest from Smith’s Divine wit and sharp writing. Some of the opus’ many characters appear for only brief stretches as Hollywood’s A-list battle for valid screen time amongst each other.

Smith is not one to shy away from controversy, or his quota of sexual innuendos and profanity. But the protestors for this film attacking its vulgarity are beyond missing the point; Dogma is reaching people the church hasn’t and can’t. It may be an audacious tweaker of a flick, but ultimately it’s bringing up religion into open debate and discussion amongst the masses where there was none before. And isn’t that in itself glorifying some type of achievement?

It would do well the opponents of Dogma to venture into a darkened theater sometime to see the movie and realize it is a humorous affirmation of faith and beliefs. The story of a crisis of faith is relatable to a society too jaded and cynical. Smith’s wrestle with theology is the public’s gain, and his halo only glows a little brighter for having the courage to do so.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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