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Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (2019)

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is strictly made for writer/director Kevin Smith’s fanbase, so does trying to play outside this cultivated audience even matter? Honestly, there’s no way this is going to be anyone’s first Smith movie, so it’s already running on an assumed sense of familiarity with the characters and stories of old, which is often a perquisite to enjoying many of the jokes (more on this later). It’s been 25 years since Clerks originally debuted and showcased Smith’s ribald and shrewd sense of dialogue-driven, pop-culture-drenched humor. He’s created his own little sphere with a fervent fanbase, so does he need to strive for a larger audience with any forthcoming movies or does he simply exclusively serve the existing crowd?

Jay (Jason Mewes) and his hetero life-mate Silent Bob (Smith) are out for vengeance once again. Hollywood is rebooting the old Bluntman and Chronic superhero movie from 2001, this time in a dark and edgy direction, and since Jay and Silent Bob are the inspirations for those characters, even their likenesses and names now belong to the studio. The stoner duo, older and not so much wiser, chart a cross-country trip to California to attend ChronicCon and thwart the filming of the new movie, directed by none other than Kevin Smith (himself). Along the way, Jay and Bob discover that Jay’s old flame, Justice (Shannon Elizabeth), had a daughter, Millennium “Milly” Falcon (Harley Quinn Smith) and Jay is the father. Milly forces Jay and Bob to escort her and her group of friends to ChronicCon and Jay struggles with holding back his real connection to her.

One of my major complaints with 2016’s Yoga Hosers (still the worst film of his career) was that it felt like it was made for his daughter, her friends, and there was no point of access for anyone else. It felt like a higher-budget home movie that just happened to get a theatrical release. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot feels somewhat similar, reaching back to the 2001 comedy that itself was reaching back on a half-decade of inter-connected Smithian characters. There is a certain degree of frantic self-cannibalism here but if the fans are happy then does Smith need to branch out? This is a question that every fan will have to answer personally. At this point, do they want new stories in the same style of the old or do they just want new moments with the aging characters of old to provide an ever-extending coda to their fictional lives?

I certainly enjoyed myself but I could not escape the fact at how eager and stale much of the comedy felt. Smith has never been one to hinge on set pieces and more on character interactions, usually profane conversations with the occasional slapstick element. This is one reason why the original Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back suffers in comparison to his more character-driven comedies. Alas, the intended comedy set pieces in Reboot come across very flat. A lustful fantasy sequence never seems to take off into outrageousness. A drug trip sequence begins in a promising and specific angle and then stalls. The final act has a surprise villain that comes from nowhere, feels incredibly dated, and delivers few jokes beyond a badly over-the-top accent and its sheer bizarre randomness. There’s a scene where the characters stumble across a KKK rally. The escape is too juvenile and arbitrary. A courtroom scene has promise when Justin Long appears as a litigation attorney for both sides but the joke doesn’t go further, capping out merely at the revelation of the idea. This is indicative of much of Reboot where the jokes appear but are routinely easy to digest and surface-level, seldom deepening or expanding. There’s a character played by Fred Armison who makes a second appearance, leading you to believe he will become a running gag that will get even more desperate and unhinged with each new appearance as he seeks vengeance. He’s never seen again after that second time. There are other moments that feel like setups for larger comedic payoffs but they never arrive. The actual clip of the Bluntman and Chronic film, modeled after Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman, is almost absent any jokes or satire. There are fourth-wall breaks that are too obvious to be funny as they rest on recognition alone. There’s a running joke where Silent Bob furiously taps away at a smart phone to then turn around and showcase a single emoji. It’s cute the first time, but then this happens like six more times. Strangely it feels like Smith’s sense of humor has been turned off for painfully long durations on this trip down memory lane. The structure is so heavily reminiscent of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back that there are moments that repeat step-for-step joke patterns but without new context, meaning the joke is practically the repetition itself.

The problem with comedy is that familiarity can breed boredom, and during the funny stretches, I found myself growing restless with Reboot as we transitioned from stop to stop among the familiar faces. I enjoyed seeing the different characters again but many of them had no reason to be involved except in a general “we’re bringing the band back together” camaraderie. It’s nice to see Jason Lee again but if he doesn’t have any strong jokes, why use him in this way? Let me dig further with Lee to illustrate the problem at heart with Reboot. Jay and Silent Bob visit Brodie (Lee) at his comic book shop, which happens to be at the mall now. He complains that nobody comes to the mall any longer and he has to worry about the “mallrats,” and then he clarifies, he’s talking about actual rodents invading the space, and he throws a shoe off screen. I challenge anyone to find that joke amusing beyond a so-bad-it’s-fun dad joke reclamation. I kept waiting for Smith to rip open some satirical jabs on pop culture since 2006’s Clerks II. In the ensuing years, Star Wars and Marvel have taken over and geek culture and comic books rule the roost. Surely a man who made his name on these topics would have something to say about this moment of over saturation, let alone Hollywood’s narrow insistence on cash-grab remakes. I kept waiting for the Smith of old to have some biting remarks or trenchant commentary. Milly’s diverse group of friends (including a Muslim woman named “Jihad”) is referred to like it’s a satirical swipe at reboots, but there isn’t a joke there unless the joke is, “Ha ha, everyone has to be woke these days,” which is clunky and doesn’t feel like Smith’s point of view. There are several moments where I felt like the humor was trying too hard or not hard enough. As a result, I chuckled with a sense of familiarity but the new material failed to gain much traction.

I do want to single out one new addition that I found to be hysterical, and that is Chris Hemsworth as a hologram version of himself at a convention. The Thor actor has opened up an exciting career path in comedy as highlighted by 2017’s Ragnarok, but just watching his natural self-effacing charm as he riffs about the dos and don’ts of acceptable behavior with his hologram is yet another reminder that this man is so skilled at hitting all the jokes given to him.

Where the movie succeeds best is as an unexpected and heartfelt father/daughter vehicle, with Jay getting a long-delayed chance to mature. It’s weird to say that a movie with Jay and Silent Bob in starring roles would succeed on its dramatic elements, but that’s because it feels like this is the territory that Smith genuinely has the most interest in exploring. The concept of Jay circling fatherhood and its responsibilities is a momentous turn for a character that has previously been regarded as a cartoon. His growing relationship with Milly is the source of the movie’s best scenes and the two actors have an enjoyable and combative chemistry, surely aided by the fact that Mewes has known Harley Quinn Smith her entire existence. This change agent leads to some unexpected bursts of paternal guidance from Jay, which presents an amusing contrast. There’s a clever through line of the difference between a reboot and a remake, and Smith takes this concept and brilliantly repackages it into a poignant metaphor about parenthood in a concluding monologue. Smith’s position as a father has softened him up a bit but it’s also informed his worldview and he’s become very unabashedly sentimental, and when he puts in the right amount of attention, it works. There’s an end credit clip with the late Stan Lee where Smith is playing a potential Reboot scene with Stan the Man, and it’s so sweet to watch the genuine affection both men have for one another. I’m raising the entire grade for this movie simply for a wonderful extended return of Ben Affleck’s Holden McNeil character, the creator of Bluntman and Chronic. We get a new ending for 1997’s Chasing Amy that touches upon all the major characters and allows them to be wise and compassionate. It’s a well-written epilogue that allows the characters to open up on weightier topics beyond the standard “dick and fart” jokes that are expected from a Smith comedy vehicle. It’s during this sequence where the movie is allowed to settle and say something, and it hits big time.

The highly verbose filmmaker has been a favorite of mine since I discovered a VHS copy of Clerks in the late 90s. I will always have a special place reserved for the man and see any of his movies, even if I’m discovering that maybe some of the appeal is starting to fade. I don’t know if we’re ever going to get a Kevin Smith movie that is intended for wide appeal again. Up next is Clerks 3, which the released plot synopsis reveals is essentially the characters of Clerks making Clerks in the convenience store, which just sounds overpoweringly meta-textual. He’s working within the confines of a narrow band and he seems content with that reality. I had the great fortune to attend the traveling road show for this film and saw Smith and Mewes in person where they introduced Reboot and answered several questions afterwards. Even though it was after midnight (on a school night!) I was happy I stayed because it was easy to once again get caught up in just how effortlessly Smith can be as a storyteller, as he spins his engaging personal yarns that you don’t want to end. As a storyteller, I’ll always be front and center for this gregarious and generous man. As a filmmaker, I’ll always be thankful for his impact he had on my fledgling ideas of indie cinema and comedy, even if that means an inevitable parting of ways as he charts a well-trod familiar path. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is made strictly for the fans, and if you count yourself among that throng, you’ll likely find enough to justify a viewing, though it may also be one of diminished returns.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Yoga Hosers (2016)

yogahosers_27x40_onesheet_c5_finalKevin Smith has been a filmmaker who has flouted expectations. When people didn’t think the Clerks guy could make a religious thriller, he did it. When people said a movie about a man being transformed into a walrus creature was undoable, he did it. I was a moderate fan of Tusk, that man-as-walrus-as-Frankenstein movie that started as a joke premise from Smith’s popular podcast and then given strange cinematic life. Yoga Hosers is the second part in Smith’s “True North” trilogy of Canadian-set horror films. I wasn’t expecting much with Yoga Hosers and I felt like I got even less than that.

Colleen Collete (Lily-Rose Depp) and Colleen McKenzie (Harley Quinn Smith) are bored clerks at a Winnipeg convenience store. Their world is turned upside down when an attractive senior boy invites them to a “grade 12” party. Too bad they have to work, though even when on the clock the girls hardly work, instead preferring to jam in the back storage room as a fledging rock band. The girls have bigger threats than unruly customers. They’ll have to battle bad Satanists, forgotten Canadian Nazis, and tiny bratwurst men who leak sauerkraut when smashed. What’s a Canuck to do?

yoga-hosers-1280x720The two areas that have always been the hallmarks of a Kevin Smith movie, his idiosyncratic characterization and ribald humor, are both strangely absent and desperately needed. Within the first ten minutes of the movie, I turned to my friend and confided, “I think I hate these girls already.” It’s somewhat ironic that Smith has gone back again to the bored convenience store clerks as the platform for his heroes. Where Dante and Randall were railing against pop-culture, adult responsibility, and a society that constantly made them feel inferior for their menial occupations, these girls aren’t railing against anything. If anything they’re retreating from the world, their noses constantly glued to their smart phones and social media. The excursions with youth culture feel rather inauthentic. The teen dialogue lacks comic snap and repeats phrases too often that it feels like set-up for T-shirt slogans (“Basic!”). Smith is far from his territory of dick and fart jokes and esoteric pop-culture detours. We’re introduced to many new characters with a slam edit of an Instagram-like cover page accompanied by an irritatingly chirpy 8-bit score. The intro graphics appear so quickly as to have little impact other than annoyance. The lead characters have no engaging personalities. They have an infatuation with older, cute boys, a love of yoga, a general attitude against authority, and a common level of self-involvement, but they’re not characters. They’re goofy but rarely are they grounded or better developed. One girl is daft and the other girl is… less daft. I’m not expecting these characters to have depth considering this is a movie with one-foot tall killer bratwurst Nazis, but some degree of personality is demanded. It’s the bare minimum.

Smith’s millennial satire is fairly toothless, which sadly is much like the comedy of Yoga Hosers. I hope you like puns and jokes about how funny Canadian accents are. The Colleens say “soory aboot that” and isn’t that hilarious? How about a convenience store called “Eh-2-Zed”? How about a yogi whose name is Yogi Bayer? How about an off-brand version of Lucky Charms called Pucky Charms? Why are there so many freaking puns? Then there’s the re-emergence of Johnny Depp’s wacky Quebec investigator, Guy Lapointe, allowing Depp to indulge his tendency for prosthetics and heavy accents. The shticky Lapointe character absolutely derailed Tusk and whatever unsettling momentum had been built, but he feels far more at home in the goofy world of Yoga Hosers. I might even say his presence is one of the highlights, as once more Depp gets to sink his teeth into all the Peter Sellers physical comedy tics he’s been holding back.

There’s just not enough comedy to go around here. There are goofy elements that crash into one another, like the Brat-Zis and a gigantic Goalie Golem, but it feels very much like Smith is just throwing a lot of dispirit elements together and expecting cohesion. He might even be expecting the audience to be satiated just in seeing something “different.” While Red State and Tusk were films that had sharp tonal shifts, Yoga Hosers never really settles into the silly supernatural teen comedy it desires to be. I laughed here and there but it was mostly attributed to Smith letting his more capable comic actors go off on tangents, like Justin Long’s yogi with his unorthodox poses. Ralph Garman, Smith podcast regular, shows up late as a Nazi who prefers to discuss his plans via celebrity impressions, a talent of Garman’s. It’s the kind of “hell, why not?” plotting that dominates the movie and makes you wonder if there ever was a finished script.

yoga-hosers-johnny-deppI doubt any version of this story would have materialized if it wasn’t starring the daughters of Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp, and I don’t have a huge issue with this. Nepotism has been a core function of Hollywood for over a hundred years, and if Smith wants to create a vehicle for his daughter, by all means. The two young ladies have a pleasant chemistry and are believable BFFs. Their back-and-forth will occasionally elevate the jokes, like their insistent yet limited Batman impressions. Harley Quinn Smith has an enjoyable mugging quality that shows she’s studied her expressions from the school of Silent Bob. Her companion, Lily-Rose Depp, may be the real breakout. She’s the more consistent actor and the stronger anchor for the film. Even when the dialogue lets her down she still infuses a notable energy into her performance. There’s an emerging talent under the surface that looks ready for discovery, and perhaps the French film Planetarium with Natalie Portman will make others take notice. I get the impression that Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp are proud papas and just wanted to have fun together as a family. Consider the movie the equivalent of a quirky sweet 16 birthday party.

Yoga Hosers is a movie for a very select group of people, perhaps only Smith’s immediate family, friends, and most ardent of podcast listeners. I doubt that’s me. I’ve been a Smith fan since my own teens. His was one of the cinematic voices that awoke my own sense of what movies could be. I miss the caustic wit that separated Smith from the indie pack. The man was one of the few writers who could spin crass vulgarity into Shakespearean gold. He was a writing talent that many emulated but few could reproduce. Smith’s whip-smart comic perspective has always been his biggest cinematic draw, but with Yoga Hosers it feels decidedly neutered and wound down. I know he has gone on record saying he’s making the movies he wants to make without interference, but it doesn’t feel like the same Smith. Admittedly, a filmmaker in his early 20s is going to have a different perspective and creative impulses than a husband and father in his mid 40s. This apparently means that Smith has veered away from his conversational comedies and button-pushing topics and bought fully into genre filmmaking, mixing a pastiche of horror elements and varying tones. As an artist he doesn’t owe me or any other fan anything. Yoga Hosers might be a one-off, a love letter to his teen daughter and her bestie, or it could portend what is to come. Kevin Smith is making movies for himself at this point in his career. If you feel left out in that equation, like me, that’s okay. We can always go back and watch Clerks again. From my viewpoint, it feels like Smith is voluntarily erasing what made him a unique cinematic voice and choosing to disappear into the benign morass of schlocky genre filmmaking.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Tusk (2014)

Tusk-poster-WEB-READY1You’ve never seen a Kevin Smith film quite like this. Even after the man’s first foray into the horror genre with the flawed but tonally ambitious Red State, I never would have expected the man best known for lewd discussions over pop-culture minutia to take note of The Human Centipede and more or less say, “Hey, let me try.” After a short self-imposed retirement, it seems like Smith is creatively reinvigorated, crafting even more boutique films that no one else would make, and Tusk is a prime example of this. Whether or not the world needs a film where a man is kidnapped and physically transformed into a walrus is a personal question you’ll have to answer in your own space.

Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) is an egotistical podcaster who is something akin to the mean-spirited version of Ira Glass. He travels around the country interviewing strange people for their strange stories, all to relate to his travel-phobic pal and podcast co-host, Teddy (Haley Joel Osment, all grown up). The two guys then crack jokes and make fun of these pathetic weirdos and losers. While in Canada, Wallace finds a curious posting in a men’s room from a man named Howard Howe (Michael Parks) seeking a companion to share his lifetime of stories with. Wallace jumps at the chance, enters Howard’s secluded home, and listens as the older, wheelchair-bound eccentric spins several yarns, notably a tale where he was lost at sea. His only “friend” was a walrus who he credits with helping to save his life. He misses his seafaring friend, and Howard has secretly drugged Wallace with the intent or transforming him into a human-walrus composite.

-1If you’re a fan of bonkers body horror and demented humor, then Tusk just might be a short but potently nasty little treat for you. If you’ve seen enough similar genre entries you’ll likely be guessing several of the plot turns before they happen, like the tea being laced with a chemical or Howard holding back his real and fiendish capabilities. However, there are moments that simply defy prediction, especially the last half of the movie where Smith doubles down on the madness of executing his premise. The tone is rather uneven and can prove to be a hindrance, with the first half more dramatic and the second half more absurd comedy. Smith impresses early on by slowly teasing the reveals: the duplicitous Howard, the revelation of missing parts, the full-on transformation. The knowing camerawork and long, creepy conversations build suspense even when we stop and realize how ridiculous this entire movie can be. And that’s not an insult but a compliment, even a saving grace when the movie takes a few too many unwieldy detours (more on that later). With a premise this bizarre, and from a director in such unknown territory as Smith has waded, I, dear reader, was laughing throughout. Tonally, it felt like Smith was acknowledging the silliness of his movie but still being true to genre. There are some genuinely creepy and unsettling moments sprinkled throughout. The practical makeup gore can at times make skin look like a crumply raincoat. The final image of Long as a human walrus is both ludicrous and a horrifying sight you cannot un-see.

Much of the movie is a series of conversations and monologues featuring Long (Dodegball, He’s Just Not That Into You) and Parks (Kill Bill). Hell, even Genesis Rodriguez (Man on a Ledge) gets a monologue; she’s Wallace’s put upon girlfriend who doesn’t like the man he’s become with fame. It’s a rather rote part undeserving of a performance as good as Rodriguez delivers. She must have thought, “Here’s my acting reel for the next few years; look casting directors, I can do much more than look hot.” Back to the central duo, Long and Parks. The film’s greatest assets are these actors and the movie is at its best when they share the screen. After his skin-crawling turn as a bile-spewing zealot in Red State, I expected Parks to be unhinged and frightening, which he is in spades. The man’s calm demeanor is especially eerie. When he breaks into openly mocking his victims, adopting Wallace’s howling cry, is another moment that bounces from creepy to funny and back to creepy again. It’s a performance pattern that Parks nimbly dances throughout the film. Honestly, this may be the strongest performance of Long’s career. He gets to portray an array of different shades with his character, from egomaniacal jerk to timid victim and finally raging science experiment (Smith’s script reminds you often how much of a jerk Wallace was). It’s more than just a performance of panicked screams. Long manages to find a character here and stays true to him, even as Wallace’s psychological grasp is broken. He almost grounds the absurd third act due to the strength of his performance.

720x405-TUSK_00063_rgbIt’s that more jocular second half where Tusk starts to lose its momentum and focus, and that’s primarily because of the introduction of the character Guy Lapointe (Johnny Depp), a French Canadian private eye. Yes, that Johnny Depp, starring in a Kevin Smith movie, adopting a silly accent and a silly fake mustache and becoming what is essentially his take on Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. It’s a character that feels like he walked in from the set of a different movie, one that is far more aimlessly wacky. The sequences with Lapointe are also laboriously overstuffed. They just go on and on, and you fee whatever sense of momentum starting to flee, sadly. Depp is amusing and I’m genuinely thrilled to see him in a small movie where he can afford to be even weirder. The problem is that the Lapointe scenes feel more like an improv session that Smith was afraid to cut short or nudge in a different direction, as if he was so gracious about Depp agreeing to be involved that he ceded all control of those scenes. The introduction to the character is a ten-minute sequence, itself with an overextended flashback, and after the initial shock and fun of watching Depp wears off, I started wishing to get back to the man-walrus.

Tusk is a unique experience, a macabre experimental lark from Kevin Smith, but it also seems to be the first in a new direction for a man who made his millions on stoner comedies. Smith is currently underway on three other movies, all of them horror, two of which are the next stages in what has become his Canadian Trilogy of Terror. While Tusk hasn’t made a blip at the box-office (if ever there was a film that cried out for on-demand, here it is), it has reawakened Smith’s creative impulses and now the guy can’t stop. Tusk is gross, funny, and genuinely creepy before it goes overboard with its very special guest star. I understand from a plot standpoint why another main character was necessary, but the movie needs some further discipline and tightening that it lacks. Basically, after reading the premise, you’ll know whether or not this film is for you. My girlfriend accompanied me without any knowledge of the plot or the genre, and she enjoyed it. Perhaps there’s hope for you as well.

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-

For a Good Time, Call (2012)

Given the success of the female-centric mega hit Bridesmaids, it was only a matter of time before we got a slew of girls-behaving-naughty R-rated sex comedies. Enter the phone sex comedy For a Good Time, Call, which has the distinction of being co-written by Seth Rogen’s real-life wife, Lauren Miller, who also stars in the film. It advertises a good time and mostly delivers, though you might not think as much about the movie in the cold light of day.

Lauren (Miller) has just been dumped by her self-involved boyfriend and fired from her job. She’s looking for a new place to live when a mutual friend sets her up with a huge New York City apartment. The catch: her roommate is Katie (Ari Graynor), an acquaintance from college she has despised ever since a very horrifying party foul of seismic proportions. Katie’s going to lose her posh home unless she gets a roommate, so the women reach a mutual understanding. Then one day, listening to Katie’s hyperactive sexual noises, Lauren discovers how her roommate really pays the bills. She’s been running a phone sex line and getting guys off for $3.99 a minute. Lauren decides to get involved in the business end, and before long the ladies have become a professional outlet and roll in their riches. Invigorated, Lauren starts experimenting herself, letting her freak flag fly, and before long she’s also getting in on the calls.

Graynor is no stranger to stealing a movie, as she did perfectly in the sweetly unassuming 2008 teen romance, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. This girl has had the markings of a star for years and finally she’s found the vehicle to showcase her comedic vivaciousness. To say Graynor makes this movie is an understatement to her talents. Graynor is this movie’s pulse, its lifeblood, its font of energy, its wickedness, its exuberance, its very soul. This woman is amazing. She can take a simple line and with an effortless dose of comedic verve, it can become a gut-buster. I could watch twelve movies in a row with Graynor playing at this level of exciting excellence. The part is pretty familiar, the dirty girl who has problem with a filter, but Graynor makes the most of every opportunity. I loved her adorable theatricality, like a foxy, younger, brassy Bette Midler (God, did I ever think I’d string those words together?). I loved her enthusiastic hip shake, wearing large body stockings, while singing, “I’m ready to beat date rape!” Naturally, Katie gets all the best lines but her interplay with Lauren also works well. When the movie focuses on Lauren, and by extension the unremarkable performance by Miller, you start to feel things slag. Lauren is passive becoming active, but really even by the end she can still be cited as boring. Katie is active, hungry, brash, charming, and wonderfully portrayed by Graynor, and when she dominates, you’ll ask for more.

Except for the lively theatrics from Graynor, the movie can often feel hung up on generic sitcom plot devices and character generalities. The premise itself is perfectly fine, but the movie seems to exist in some randy fantasy world. We still have a main character in the world of publishing that will obviously be offered the Big Job at an inopportune personal time (as movies have shown, every human being on the planet either works in publishing, advertising, or theater). And then there’s the Bad Boyfriend, who breaks up with our heroine in the opening moments of the movie because they are “boring” together. Any guesses whether he shows up late as well, begging her back? I’d probably be more forgiving of these contrived plot turns if the movie did more to present Lauren and Katie as real characters. As written, they are pigeonholed into opposites (prude/wild woman) and rarely do we learn more about them. Lauren loosens up, Katie gains some self-respect, and they girls becomes BFFs. That development I found rather unconvincing, probably because there was little development. All of a sudden Lauren has an interest in joining the business, and one montage later, the girls have buried the hatchet. It feels like everything changed overnight. The attempts to ladle in some forced sweetness feels, in some regards, more crass than the sex jokes. I’ll credit the movie for keeping me amused while watching, but upon further reflection, the girls and their relationship feels rather slapdash and rote.

The comedy itself gets too easily complacent with all those naughty words bandied about. Oh sure there’s plenty of effective jokes about sexually frank conversations, and the inherently awkward nature of phone sex mechanics, but For A Good Time, Call seems too easily satisfied. I wish that Miller and co-writer Katie Anne Naylor had pushed their comedic setups further, had taken a few more left turns rather than settling for the familiar sex gag. Here’s an example: Lauren’s prissy parents make an unexpected visit and the girls have to hide their business particulars. That’s a fine starting point, but where else does it go? The comic tension is too easily resolved instead of escalated. Then, surprise, the parents make a SECOND unexpected visit. This time the sex decorations are prominently displayed. We’re waiting for some good comedic tension, some squirming, but again, it’s over before the good stuff can even get going (am I right, ladies?). The Justin Long (Going the Distance) flamboyantly gay friend is never as funny as the movie thinks he is. There’s a scene where Lauren is interrupted while masturbating, but we only realize after the fact when the joke is already over. Why introduce such a scenario if you were just going to settle for a weak “smelly finger” joke? Perhaps I would find the material funnier if I was a woman, relating more to the female dynamic on screen, but do you see how condescending that line of thinking gets? I unabashedly adored Bridesmaids (my #3 film of that year). I don’t think anyone needs to grade a comedy on a curve for any reason, especially if they think they’re trying to be polite.

I’m not going to make more or less of its sexual politics than what is presented. I think there is genuine merit when women take ownership of their sexuality. Why should women feel judged for wanting equality when bedroom activities and impulses are concerned? Whatever helps people build a healthy self-image should be championed, as long as it’s between consenting adults. Watching Katie and Lauren personally grow based upon their unique entrepreneurship is welcomed. However, I can’t help but shake my feelings that there is something lurking, some deeper sub current that is not worth celebrating because the movie seems to play into male fantasy. Even though I adored Graynor, I think it would have served the film better if the more sexually-liberated character, the pro when it comes to working the phones, was actually a less attractive woman, perhaps a mousy gal you’d never expect such lurid behavior from. I think that would offer more comedic potential as well. I think this would also puncture some of the airbrushed fantasy of the film’s cheescake world of a phone sex line.

I have my complaints but I was laughing fairly regularly and enjoyed the experience, so if you’re just looking for a good time at the movies you can consider For A Good Time, Call. Watching Graynor sink her teeth into her role and go full gusto is a rowdy pleasure, and it’s easy to see that this woman is a star. The smutty jokes are fun and offer plenty of ribald laughs, but I always felt like the movie was too complacent, too settled, and curiously clumsy when it came to comic payoffs. The film is pretty flatly directed by Jamie Travis. The characters are pretty thin, and the plot feels ripped from a flimsy TV sitcom, but I laughed aplenty and found the movie difficult to dislike. It’s not the most nuanced sex comedy, or the most ribald, but For a Good Time, Call delivers enough big jokes and Graynor is too sensational to miss.

Nate’s Grade: B

Going the Distance (2010)

At turns randy and sweet, this romantic comedy is surprisingly honest about the trials of long-distance relationships. Justin Long and Drew Barrymore fall for one another before their respective careers place them on opposite coasts. They explore all the real frustrations of having your beloved only reachable via phone for months on end. Going the Distance presents two likeable leads with an affable chemistry, and the real kicker is that they genuinely love each other. Nobody is a man-child or a shrew. The real villain is the distance. While the film doesn’t know if it wants to be a Judd Apatow-style raunchy comedy or a saccharine romantic comedy, there is a strong rooting interest in our couple. The supporting characters aren’t too wacky, the situations feel more authentic than contrived, and our couple makes seriously difficult decisions in the end that are downright adult. Going the Distance is a true surprise of a film. It’s got enough laugh-out-loud lines and situations to recommend as a comedy and enough emotional involvement to recommend as a relationship drama. It’s a little unnecessarily vulgar at times, like a fascinated kid who has just discovered the power of dirty words. While it may not go the full distance, this cheeky rom-com will nicely get you to a pleasant place.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Sam Raimi returns to his spook roots in this delightfully disgusting horror flick. Drag Me to Hell has such a gleefully playful and perverse personality, alternating between being scary, being gross, being funny, and circling back for more. This is camp of the highest hokey order, and Raimi infuses every moment with inspired schlock. Poor Alison Lohman, the bank loan officer cursed to be dragged to hell in three days time. She gets a lot of fluids sprayed into her face (there’s an oral obsession to this movie; lots of mouth stuff) and she takes it like a trooper. She’s put through a physical wringer here and maintains her dignity and believability amongst staples to the head, grave digging, and talking goats. The ending seems to be coasting to a predictable finish and then it hits you in the head, upsetting your sensibilities. I loved it. Drag Me to Hell, ultimately, is little more than a glossy, entertaining blow-off, a reminder what an inventive director can do with the horror genre. It doesn’t all have to be nubile teenagers escaping a knife-wielding maniac. If there is one lesson I’ve learned from movies and television, you do not anger the gypsies. They have a monopoly on curses and they are not afraid to use them.

Nate’s Grade: A-

He’s Just Not That Into You (2009)

Based upon the best-selling nonfiction book, the movie follows the interconnected lives of a cadre of characters trying to get lucky in love. As with any ensemble piece, some storylines are better than others, notably Ginnifer Goodwin (HBO’s Big Love) as a naïve and hapless gal confused by the ever-changing rules and rituals of contemporary courtship. Her scenes with Justin Long, as her dating coach, are the movie’s high-point. The two actors have a light, charming chemistry and their scenes get at the heart of the male/female dating dysfunctionality without feeling trite. But in between, you get a lot of hackneyed yakking about the stereotypical differences between men and women, how dumb men are, how crazy women can be, etc. It’s all been covered to death by other romantic comedies to the point that it feels like common knowledge, which makes it tiring to sit through. Some of the drama feels overly manufactured, like Jennifer Aniston pushing to get married because she her little sister got engaged, there are characters that are just annoying people, like Kevin Connolly continuing to nip at the heels of Scarlett Johansson for some scraps, and Some of the material is weirdly dated, like Drew Barrymore talking about being “Myspace-ed” by a prospective date (Hello, it’s all Facebook all the time now). Naturally, it’s all rather predictable as well, however, this is not the fun date movie it may seem. It hits some rough dramatic patches, like the pains of infidelity, losing trust in a spouse, manipulating people, and occasionally there will be a moment that comes across as genuine and heartfelt, like when Ben Affleck wins over Aniston simply by being thoughtful and doing the dishes. It’s in these sporadic moments that He’s Just Not That Into You feels like it’s tapped something a little deeper and more meaningful than scraping the barrel of romantic comedy clichés.

Nate?s Grade: C+

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)

It’s amazing how integrated pornography has become in our culture. Merely a few decades ago people had to wear disguises to venture out to a ratty theater to watch an adult movie alongside plenty of folks in raincoats helping to add to the sticky floors. Nowadays releasing a sex tape is considered a career boost. Porn stars have replaced supermodels as rock star arm candy, porn has become more socially acceptable, and a wealth of bizarre and explicit possibilities exist just a few keystrokes away. In the end, it’s all fantasy with bad acting.

And yet Kevin Smith’s newest comedy, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, got in trouble with advertisers because of people getting in a tizzy over the goofy word “porno.” Major League Baseball was told that a father was uncomfortably asked by his son what a “porno” was after seeing a commercial during a ball game. Heaven forbid our nation’s parents have to deal with an uncomfortable subject, so baseball banned any ads for the movie. Many newspapers nationwide have refused to list the full title. The original poster was deemed too inappropriate so Smith and crew devised a poster of stick figures. Poster version 2.0 then came under fire for being attractive to children because of the stick figure art. It seems Zack and Miri is getting it at both ends (no pun intended).

Times are tough for lifelong friends Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks). They’re scrambling to pay their bills and keep the electricity in their apartment during a chilly winter in Pennsylvania. Inspired by a conversation with a chatty gay porn star (Justin Long) at their tenth year high school reunion, Zack believes amateur porn can solve their money woes. The two will make their own porn video and sell it to the alumni list from their graduating class, who, Zack rationalizes, would buy a porn if they knew someone involved. Zack convinces his coffee shop co-worker Delaney (Craig Robinson) to help fund the project. Delaney agrees as long as he can have a say in casting; after many years of marriage he is eager to see something new. The team also recruits a squeaky-voiced stripper (current porn starlet Katie Morgan), an old bachelor party performer (former porn starlet Traci Lords), a cameraman (Jeff Anderson), and a man free from any inhibition (Jason Mewes). But Zack and Miri must confront their unspoken feelings for one another as they approach their own sex scene. Can they go from platonic friends to lovers?

Being a Smith film, naturally Zack and Miri is outrageous and often hysterical. The film manages to become witty and dirty at the same time, often stringing together vulgarities in exciting and imaginative ways (the curious “Dutch Rudder” as a means of escaping being deemed gay). Smith has a love of the profane. The movie is vulgar like most Smith movies but the beauty of its filth is in the sparkling, rapid-fire dialogue that adds eloquence to the scatological. This is Smith’s comedic brand, the verbose dirty joke. As in other Smith comedies, the true humor is not found in set pieces and set-ups but in the everyday camaraderie of the cast and through casual conversations. Smith writes characters that you just want to listen to for hours. Zack and Miri does have some funny moments that are specific to the production of randy moviemaking, like an unforgettable de-clogging that “frosts” a cameraman. The joke is swift. However, akin to the Judd Apatow brand of comedy, this is a movie where the charm is watching the characters interact, regardless of setting. I do think the movie unfortunately missed plenty of other potential gags on the silly minutia of homemade pornography. How about the crazy duties for a sound design? Imagine a guy trying to recreate the many weird bodily sounds during sex. I’m mildly shocked that Smith didn’t even touch the vagaries of pubic hair style.

What the movie does nicely is dwell upon the distinction between love and sex. Now I’m not conveniently forgetting the thousands of movies that have come before and dealt with the topic of intimacy and carnality, but Zack and Miri goes into the nuts and bolts (no pun intended) of an industry that has turned intimacy into a mass-market business model. Zack and Miri stress out about their Big Scene and try to convince themselves that it won’t mean anything, but of course their body language betrays them. The actual deed is an obvious turning point for the twosome and count this as one sex scene that is actually, well, emotionally climactic and, yes, sexy. Though the camera only stays at shoulder-length and alternates between two angles, the actors convincingly convey an array of genuine feelings, notably love. It’s not easy for an actor to display honest-to-goodness love, but Banks and Rogen achieve this feat. The aftermath of their onscreen coupling extends into a seemingly unnecessary third act that divides them apart in a contrived fashion. Seriously, the typical third act misunderstanding in standard romantic comedy fluff is alive and well in a Smith vehicle. The characters do not react to this misunderstanding in a realistic manner; one character would rather be sequestered than easily prove their innocence.

While Zack and Miri has plenty of laughs and a nice, mushy center, I cannot help but feel mixed about the results. The characters are not nearly as sharply drawn as they have been in other Apatow comedies, even other Kevin Smith movies. I can go back and remember the multiple dimensions of the funny people that populated Superbad, Sarah Marshall, 40-Year Old Virgin and others, but Kevin Smith’s latest comedy suffers in comparison. Zack and Miri are the only characters with moderate sums of characterization, and yet their unspoken love is essentially the bulk of that. Neither character is well defined or explored in a substantial way that doesn’t involve the other. I get that the movie is a romance. But I expect more from characters than to be defined by whom they desire. I just wanted more. Yes Zack is a slacker who says he’s just looking for a good time, though we know he has his sights set on more, and yes Miri is a gorgeous gal with a lot of patience, but these characters are staples of Kevin Smith movies. The assorted side characters have fun moments but are mostly insignificant. There’s the stripper with a heart of gold, the been-around-the-block type, the henpecked husband, the secret freak behind the button-down exterior, the loudmouth, and the sex-crazed dude. Zack and Miri establishes the idea of filmmaking as a community by introducing this lot, but the movie then forgets to incorporate the supporting characters in meaningful ways. They’re mostly used for jokes that fail to extend beyond the immediate. A late scene involving Delaney’s angry wife (Tisha Campbell-Martin) relies on too many grating “white boy” japes that I tuned out. I’m not intending to slam Smith’s film, but the lack of character work hampers the audience investment in the central romance.

What is lacking on paper is nearly compensated by the great performances from Rogen and Banks. Both are on loan from the Apatow comedy company, and both are skilled at being raunchy one second and heartfelt the next. Rogen finds his comic groove easily and is an enjoyable schmo that taps hidden ambition in the most unlikely of scenarios. It really is Banks who comes across as the star of the flick. She can talk trash with the boys but she is radiant during the film’s dramatic moments, selling Miri’s emotional highs and lows with crinkling smiles and fluttering eyelashes. Banks has always been a solid actress underutilized by most of her marginal film roles. With Zack and Miri, Banks showcases a devilish comedic gleam. Of course yet again the audience must believe that a beautiful gal with a beaming smile would be down on her luck finding a good guy.

In the end (no pun intended), Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a crude romantic comedy that might have benefited by more attention spent on the romance or the comedy. The tone never breaks as sharply as with Chasing Amy, arguably still Smith’s finest accomplishment, but the dirty humor and the gooey romance have a hard time expanding because of the presence of each other. Too often the ribald humor doesn’t feel fully realized because the dirty jokes are just window dressing for the romance, and I had trouble fully engaging with the romance because the characters haven’t been rendered to have substantial depth. Smith may have been better served by making his movie longer; the film is barely an hour and 40 minutes long. Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a sweet movie with a dirty mind but it does not measure up to recent comedies like the best of Apatow’s brand. Smith is a talented wordsmith who certainly knows how to make an entertaining comedy, and Zack and Miri certainly entertains, but like pornography, it just made me want something more fleshed-out and real (no pun intended).

Nate’s Grade: B-

Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

A lot has changed in the world and for Bruce Willis since last we saw John McClane in 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance a.k.a. Die Hard 3: Die Harder-er. Is a post 9/11 anxiety-ridden world, does someone like McClane feel quaint, like the remnant of a bygone era? Live Free or Die Hard, a.k.a. Die Hard 4, is Willis getting back to butt-kicking, wise-cracking basics. The film is a surprising and fun summer entry that could have been much much worse, and for that I am grateful.

McClane (Willis) is a pretty run down man thanks to the rigors of his job the heavy price being labeled a “hero.” He’s divorced, estranged from his teenage daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and retired from the force. He gets called to transport a hacker named Matt (Justin Long) from New Jersey to D.C. and into federal custody. Before he can leave Matt’s apartment, assassins start shooting at McClane and the hacker and the two go on the run for their lives. A former national security leader, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) has planned what is known as a Fire Sale, where the United States’ infrastructure is brought to a standstill by eliminating all power services, communications, and causing the nation to be consumed by chaos. Matt was one of the many that were contracted to unknowingly write code that would assist in Gabirels’ techno takedown. Now Gabriel is cleaning up his tracks and that involves removing an increasingly irritatable John McClane.

The film is nothing short of Bruce Willis trying to reclaim the action movie genre the way he sees it should be. Die Hard 4 is all about how computers and our complete reliance on modern technology put us all at risk if someone ever pulls the plug. Willis and the film are an efficient, and enjoyably retrograde Hollywood action flick that scoffs at kung fu, self-indulgent effects, and the gravity-defying acrobatics that have dominated action cinema since the rise of The Matrix. McClane shrugs and cannot understand this “kung fu shit” and mistrusts computers. Die Hard 4 puts most of its attention on good old-fashioned practical stunt work, not that the film’s sequences are practical, like when McClane is driving an 18-wheeler around a crumbling highway while being fired upon by a fighter jet. Live Free or Die Hard is crammed with gunfights, fistfights, and motor vehicles launched into the sky. People bounce around like pin balls. It pushes the boundaries of PG-13 action; the profanity of the previous films isn’t exactly missed, but it’s regrettable that cinema’s best catch phrase to ever use the term “yippee-ki-yay” has to be partially muffled by a sound effect to keep its more family-friendly rating.

Willis helps keep things grounded with an enjoyable acting style best be described as bemused crankiness. Throughout the long trip foes and intense obstacles beset McClane, and yet he remains the same grumpy Gus that can’t believe his own damn luck. Whenever he defeats a well armed opponent, or does something “so crazy it just might work,” and it does, he laughs to himself like he cannot believe his luck. He informs the bad guys that he is coming, and he will kill them, and they ask him how and even he doesn’t know and he doesn’t care. He’s a one-man wrecking crew, as he always has been, but there’s an added level of fun watching someone with an AARP card (who isn’t Clint Eastwood) kicking ass and taking cyber geek names.

Director Len Wiseman cut his teeth on the terrible Underworld movies (I’m sorry, but if you got a movie about vampires vs. werewolves, you don’t give them leather and guns and call it a night), but he now has won me over with his work on Die Hard 4. His careening, deep-focus visuals are like a mix of Michael Bay with an extra dose of the fetish-loving Wachoswki brothers. There are a handful of visual scrapes that really pop onscreen like some very close encounters with high-speed cars.

But let’s not get too wrapped up in the fun of Live Free or Die Hard. It’s still an out-and-out action movie complete with plot holes, logic gaps, stock characters (the movie loses steam every time we have to cut back to the FBI agents), and some one-liner groaners. The villains are pretty standard, though very tech heavy in their approach. The movie never explains why a good portion of the henchmen are French. McClane’s daughter will obviously get crafty and bullish when under pressure, proving herself a chip off the old block. The banter between Willis and Long is overdone in an attempt to add more frantic feeling to a tale about the end of all reliance on technology.

Live Free or Die Hard is an efficient and satisfying retro, macho action movie. The action is frenetic and focused on hard-nosed stunt work that brings so much more excitement to the film. The movie works, and that in and of itself is something of a miracle. McClane rattles off a monologue about what it means to be a hero, and in the end he says it’s just about you being the guy willing to do his job no matter what. Well, as far as I’m concerned, the John McClane job is about providing solid action-packed crowd pleasers. I don’t care how old the man gets, because under the right direction he delivers.

Nate’s Grade: B

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