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My Spy (2020)

This was a movie that intrigued me because of the number of release delays and because, by the trailers, it just looked like it was going to be fairly bad. It’s not actually bad, simply mediocre family fare (with an extra dose of Cardi B. swearing in song repeatedly). It’s Dave Bautista trying on the Kindergarten Cop formula, and the plot is pretty much what you would expect, with Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) having to watch a family and befriending the little daughter in danger, schooling her in the ways of spycraft before having to be rescued during the big finale. As far as children’s films go, it’s pretty standard and inoffensive stuff. It coasts on Bautista and the little girl (Chloe Coleman) having a fun chemistry that rises above the obvious and under-developed comedy set pieces. However, there are flashes that point to what My Spy could have been, a more spy and satirical tweak of spy hijinks and action movie cliches. The little girl wants to learn how to be a spy action hero, so she asks about walking away with her back to an explosion and trying out other tropes. She even sizes up all the “tragic backstory” options for Bautista’s character we expect. The finale even involves throwing a grenade into a burning oil truck just to achieve an explosion worthy of walking away from. These little moments are enough to convince me there was a superior draft of this script before it was dulled and softened in the rewrite process for mass consumption. It’s not going to be a great film experience but as formulas go, Bautista plus precocious kid is winning enough to satisfy for 90 minutes.

Nate’s Grade: C

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy Rich Asians is a frothy mix of familiar 90s romantic comedy cliches and tropes but now with an all-Asian cast and Asian culture given a dignified spotlight. Thanks to the strides in representation, it makes the familiar feel fresh again. This is a very Pretty Woman princess fantasy story of an ordinary woman, Rachel Chu (the great Constance Wu) falling in love with a rich man who then whisks her away to his rich family home out of country and introduces her to the world of the cloistered elites, ex-girlfriends, and hangers-on and their disapproval. Much of the conflict hinges on her feeling accepted by her man’s scowling, scary mother played by the formidable Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The two-hour running time mostly consists of a lot of blandly nice people. I think enough of these supporting characters could have been consolidated or eliminated to give more space to characters that matter. The film reminded me, in some regards, of the 50 Shades series where we jump from scene to scene to celebrate the extravagance of an elite lifestyle of luxury. It’s intended to alienate Rachel and contrast with her humble, hard-working, honest sensibilities, but after two or three of these, I don’t think it’s quite having that effect. Wu (TV’s Fresh Off the Boat) is a charming, loveable lead, and the film has fun, colorful characters played by Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8) and Ken Jeong (The Hangover trilogy), who amazingly doesn’t overstay his welcome. The production design and costumes are sensational and might even get some Oscar attention. Crazy Rich Asians is a fairly formulaic but pleasant enough movie, and the fact that an all-Asian cast rom-com is slotted as a summer movie is a positive sign. The end results are a fizzy fantasy repackaged but still entertaining and without a sense of pandering.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Hangover Part III (2013)

245649id1i_HO3_Final_Rated_27x40_1Sheet.inddI was no huge fan of the first Hangover movie and I cited its 2011 sequel, a carbon copy of the original, as one of the worst films of the year. The supposed final chapter ditches the blackout formula, which on its face seems like a step in the right direction, but now we have a Hangover movie with no titular hangover and at heart this is a movie for no one, even hardcore Hangover fans. I became quite cognizant how little I was laughing, not just because the jokes were badly misfiring, which they were, but also because there were so few jokes. You’d be hard-pressed to label this a comedy. It’s really more of an action thriller. What humor does arise is usually mean-spirited, curdled, or just off-putting, particular the reoccurring theme of animal cruelty (maybe opening your film with a decapitated giraffe is not the best idea). The other major hurdle is that annoying supporting characters played by Ken Jeong and Zach Galifianakis are elevated to co-leads. Both of these characters are best when reacting to others rather than being the main actors in the story. This movie is so abysmal as a comedy that you start to think director Todd Phillips should try his hand at a straight action thriller; the guy has a strong eye for visual composition. The actors all look extremely bored. Could Justin Bartha, the character who always gets sidelined, just get murdered and they have to hide his body? Oh no, I think I just came up with The Hangover 4. I apologize already.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Zookeeper (2011)

A lamebrain comedy with a horrible, repulsive romance where we watch a sweet, hapless zookeeper (Kevin James) romance a shallow woman (Leslie Bibb) who dumped him years ago and wants him to change, despite the fact that he’s great at his job, loves what he does, an the animals love the big lug as well, so much so that the animals all take turns giving the guy mating advice. That doesn’t sound like a bad premise for a comedy, though James takes the admission that animals could always talk a little too in stride. Their advice typically amounts to stuff like “puff out your chest” and “pee on this tree.” The potential of the premise is dashed when the comedy usually takes one of two routes: 1) James being clumsy, or, 2) James being fat. Rarely will The Zookeeper stray from these two troughs of canned laughs. There’s a bizarre montage of product placement for T.G.I. Friday’s where James takes a gorilla out to the restaurant. There’s Rosario Dawson looking splendid as the Obvious Love Interest Who Will Not Materialize Until James Has to Chase Her Down to Stop Her From Leaving. And there are poop jokes. Oh, the poop jokes. At one point there was a studio bidding war over this screenplay, which has five names attached to the finished product. I can’t imagine the end result was worth fighting over when it’s so predictable, flat-footed, and unfunny. And why have animals singing over the end credits? Surely that little dash of CGI was an extra few million dollars that could have been spent wiser, like purchasing a different script.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

After the obnoxious, oafish mess that was 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a sequel that took everything good from the first flick and undermined it and took everything awful and magnified it, I wasn’t expecting much. True, low expectations have benefited this franchise built upon merchandizing, product placement, and giant freaking robots that fight. I still remain a fan of the first film back in 2007, and I do feel like director Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Armegeddon) is a natural fit for this material. But after another overlong, overblown, and overloaded Transformers film, I’m starting to think that the franchise’s best days left with Megan Fox and her cut-off jean shorts.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) has graduated from college and is now perusing a job in Washington D.C.’s vast center of government contracts. He’s living with his new girlfriend, Carly (Rose Huntington-Whiteley), the assistant to a rich billionaire (Patrick Dempsey) and his fleet of collector cars. Sam gets a job with at a military private contractor run by a angry loon (John Malkovich). But Sam’s post-collegiate journey once again runs afoul with killer alien robots. The villainous Decepticons are plotting to steal a spaceship that crash-landed on the dark side of Earth’s moon. Inside that spaceship are teleporter orbs and a sleeping robotic giant known as Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy, hooray). Optimus Prime, leader of the noble Autobots, revives his predecessor. Together, the group attempts to thwart the Decepicons, lead once again by Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving).

The Transformers films have been getting larger and larger in scope and destructive power; the first film messed up some L.A. streets, the awful second film trashed Egyptian pyramids (only Six Wonders of the World left in your punch card, Bay), and now the third film pretty much obliterates downtown Chicago in stunning and overblown fashion. The climactic Windy City beatdown lasts a solid 50 minutes and may just be the greatest thing Bay has ever put onscreen, which admittedly might be faint praise to many. Perhaps the city of Chicago thought this would make for good tourism: ”Hey kids, come see the buildings that were turned to rubble in your favorite summer movie!” The impressive special effects are uniformly terrific, and the integration of reality and fantasy seems seamless. That goes without saying. I must credit Bay for creating sustainable action that is, here it goes, actually coherent. I know that “Bay” and “coherency” rarely go together, so I’m as shocked as everyone. No longer does geography become a hindrance to understanding. During this climactic Chicago onslaught, the locations are established, the objectives are clear, and the audience has a crisp understanding of the different teams, their paths, and their organic roadblocks and setbacks.

There’s a strong set piece within this 50-minute assault where Sam and company enter into a crumbling skyscraper that then teeters on its side. The organic complications allow for some nifty, almost ingenious, split-decisions utilizing a specific location, the hallmark of good action sequences. One moment they’re climbing up the floors, the next moment they’re tumbling through the floors, then sliding down the sheer glass wall, then firing at the glass to fall back inside and tumble some more. All the while a giant worm-like robot is churning through the foundation of this collapsing building. The scale of the sequence is quite thrilling for the time being. And yes, the 9/11 imagery is undeniable and relatively unearned without even a nod to solemnity or anything less than brainless summer spectacle. Sure the “cool-ness” of the individual parts never really materializes into something greater, and yeah maybe the action would have more impact if you actually felt for the characters, or knew who some of them even were, but you take what you can get in Michael Bay world. The extended climax for Transformers: Dark of the Moon is relentless and will beat you into submission, admiring the intrinsic beauty unique to Bay’s epic, albeit mind-numbing, demolition of the senses.

But Dark of the Moon is also the most visually coherent of Bay’s troika of Transformers flicks because the man has finally settled down when it comes to editing. Now no one will confuse this movie for Rope or Russian Ark (look it up, Transformers geeks), but the edit/panic button is given a slight reprieve. The shots last longer; the editing is far less frenetic and chaotically ADD-addled, and no longer does a Transformers action sequence look like jumbled, mechanical scrambled porn. Image A and Image B make a logical connection, at long last. You can tell which robot is which, for the most part. Perhaps this editing epiphany was a result of Bay’s corporate betters insisting that the film be shot in 3D (I chose to see the film in good old boring 2D, feeling that 150-minutes of Michael Bay with headache-inducing glasses was not worth the extra dough). Perhaps Bay had to consciously think about his audience’s well being so his shot selections lasted longer than his usual whirlwind of cuts. Perhaps the secret was loading Bay with cameras that weigh the same as couches. Maybe a little extra weight was all the man needed to formulate lucid action sequences.

And yet Dark of the Moon is just as stupid, outlandish, and tonally disjointed as the other movies, particularly the abysmal Revenge of the Fallen. The comedy remains at a puerile, sophomoric level. Bay’s sensibilities have always somewhat mirrored that of a snickering 14-year-old boy; the love of destruction, the fascination with things that go “boom,” the ogling of lithe feminine bodies. No joke, the first image seen directly after the film’s title is a close-up of Huntington-Whiteley’s ass ascending a staircase. I imagine there were plenty of men spasming in their 3D glasses trying to reach out and grab the circumference of a Victoria Secret model’s talents. I wrote about the second film: “Women don’t seem to exist in the Michael Bay world, only parts and pieces of women.” Huntington-Whiteley’s character certainly leaves much to be desired, outside aesthetics. At least Megan Fox’s character had, you know, some character traits. I also wrote: “Amazingly enough, [Fox] manages to lose more clothes the more she runs in slow-mo, allowing the male audience members to follow the nuance of her bouncing breasts. She’s clearly not the next Meryl Streep but this girl deserves more than being wordless arm candy.” Seems apt to me. Carly is as bland as she is blank-eyed beautiful, just the way Bay likes ‘em.

The first 90 minutes of the film is spent with the humans and it’s like being trapped inside a bad comedy. There has always been a strong comedic bent to the franchise ever since the first film in 2007; however, the latter films have taken to grotesque caricature. In Dark of the Moon, the comedy is so deeply unfunny but so consistently antic, trying to overwhelm you with its bad taste. There’s a scene where Ken Jeong (yes, you read that right) corners Sam in a bathroom stall to distribute his crackpot manifesto. Then Sam’s boss walks in and, oh boy, he overhears and thinks they’re having a homosexual liaison in the men’s stall. What a hoot. Then Sam’s mother gives him dating advice, stating there’s no earthly way her son is going to nab a third “hottie” unless her boy has a giant…. and trials off (wouldn’t a mother kind of have an idea about that subject?). And then there’s the little Autobots, the size of remote control cars (perfect presents for Christmas mom and dad), who wheel around spitting smart-alecky backtalk. The entire Malkovich portion could have easily been cut from the film without damaging a soul. The Ken Jeong stuff should have been eliminated first. There’s something to be said when John Turturro’s returning Agent Simmons is the least annoying comic sidekick in this movie. But hey, at least there aren’t any overt racist depictions and jokes about robot scrotums. Nope, there’s only infantile humor and nonchalant misogyny. The comedic pit stops and non-sequitors never allow the movie’s tone to gel.

Before the movie descends into an all-out series of explosions and shrapnel, the setup actually has some genuine interest. Then it just all goes nuts at warp speed. The fact that the space race to the moon had a sinister ulterior motive, investigating alien technology, is an intriguing start. Bay even shoots the 1960s sequences like he’s ripping off Oliver Stone, swapping film stocks and black and white film to showcase his historical reinactors (three presidents get represented, including Obama). Apparently after this film and X-Men: First Class, the breakout star this summer is archived footage of JFK (man did he have a full plate, mutants and robots, and the man still found time to bang Marilyn Monroe). There’s even a cameo by the real Buzz Aldrin, which served to make me remember his better cameo on TV’s 30 Rock (“Would you like to yell at the moon with me?” he politely asked Tina Fey).  The space race was a pretense for getting our human hands on some alien technology. Of course we were warned years ahead of time via Pink Floyd but nobody could put the pieces together. But there’s more alternative history to be had. Turns out that the disastrous nuclear accident at Chernobyl was caused by the Russians trying to operate alien/Transformer technology. I’m sure modern-day Ukrainians will adore having their deadly tragedy turned into a plot point in a stupid movie about fighting robots. The Decepticons wicked plan is to open a teleportation portal and bring their dead planet, Cybertron, to Earth. Then they will use Earth’s human population as slave labor to bring their dead planet back to life. My question is this: when you’re a huge robot the size of a building, wouldn’t puny little humans make for a terrible labor force with their stunted little legs and feeble muscles? I know there’s billions of them, but there’s a reason human beings have never turned on ants and forced them to become a labor force for our construction projects. How many more deadly things from Cybertron are secretly going to be hidden on Earth? And yet none of this is even one-tenth as stupid as Transformers’ heaven in Revenge of the Fallen.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is likely everything fans would want from a franchise. There’s wanton destruction, a plethora of noisy explosions, and plenty of eye candy both in special effects wizardry and pouty, full-lipped women. But at a colossal 150-minute running time, this is a Transformers film that punishes as much as it entertains. There’s really no reason a movie about brawling robots should be this long. There’s no reason it should have to resort to so much dumb comedy. There’s no reason that the women should be fetishized as if they were another sleek line of sexy cars. There’s no reason why something labeled a “popcorn movie” can’t deliver escapist thrills and have a brain too. Dark of the Moon is saved by its long Chicago-set climax, which gives way to some staggering action set pieces. The newest Transformers movie is just as stupid as the rest (what the hell is up with the weird Igor robots tending to Megatron that just seem to grumble and grunt?) but, unlike the previous installment, it’s not offensively stupid. Dark of the Moon is an exhaustive experience whose thrilling high points even feel mechanical and pre-programmed. Is this the future of Hollywood? Bay and his army of robotics and excessive spectacle have taken over the world. When it comes to big-time summer entertainment, the machines of Hollywood are going nowhere fast and even louder.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Hangover: Part II (2011)

When you’re responsible for the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all time, a film that grossed over half a billion dollars worldwide, then you don’t want to tinker with a winning formula of a surprise hit. Naturally, with that kind of money, a sequel was inevitable. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips (Old School, Due Date) is back and so is everybody and everything else. You’ll get a strong sense of déjà vu watched The Hangover: Part II. That’s on purpose. This calculated, rather soulless cash-grab sequel wants to recreate the organic experience of the first film. If you played The Hangover and The Hangover: Part II on simultaneous TVs, I would not be surprised if the same plot points happened at the exact same minute-marks. It might even be like a Pink Floyd/Wizard of Oz experience. I paid twice to see the same movie two years apart.

Stu (Ed Helms) is about to get married in Thailand to Lauren (Jamie Chung). Our favorite wound-up dentist is apprehensive about any sort of bachelor party shenanigans after the events of two years ago in Las Vegas. His pals Phil (Bradley Cooper), Doug (Justin Bartha), and the socially inept Alan (Zack Galifianakis) make the trek to attend the festivities. For Alan, it’s a reunion of the Wolfpack and an excuse finally to venture out of his parent’s home. Stu has some ground to make up with his bride-to-be’s father. Her father seethes about the prospect that his beautiful daughter is going to marry Stu, a man he compares to watered down rice. Lauren’s younger brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), a pre-med student and concert cellist, is left to the Wolfpack’s care the night before the wedding. They’ll just have one drink on the beach. What’s the worst that could happen? Flash to the next morning. The guys awaken in a strange apartment. Teddy is missing and missing a finger as well. Stu, Phil, and Alan must once again retrace their steps and solve the mystery of their hard-partying antics before the wedding ceremony.

The Hangover: Part II is a carbon copy of the original. Because the same joke is just as funny the second time around, right? This empty enterprise gives its audience exactly what they want, which is precisely the same experience they had with the first film. But so much of comedy is predicated on surprise, so how can you recreate the experience of discovery that people so heartily enjoyed with the first film? The Hangover: Part II is like a cheap comedy Mad Libs game: it reuses the same gags and just fills in the blanks. Hey, if Joke A worked before, why couldn’t we just have Joke A in this different location (instead of two guys walking into a bar, they walk into a different bar)? It’s like somebody copied and pasted the screenplay from the original movie, changed the locations and minor details, and cashed a check. Let me get into how stunningly indolent the screenwriting is (small spoilers to follow). Once again a person in their group goes missing before a wedding. Once again Stu has some self-inflicted wound to his face. Once again the guys have stolen someone else’s unorthodox pet. Once again they find themselves with a ward (baby in first film, Mr. Chow in second). Once again Stu has gotten involved with a prostitute. Once again Alan was secretly responsible for their drugging. Once again Justin Bartha gets left out of the escapades. Once again Mr. Chow shows his junk for shock value. Once again Mr. Chow jumps out of a locked container attacking the guys. Once again the guys have to return money to a gangster. Once again Stu plays a song of his own creation bemoaning their situation. Once again they have to race to the wedding minutes away. Once again we have a Mike Tyson cameo. Once again the guys find pictorial evidence of their debauchery and they play over the credits. Even directing touches like a time-lapse high-rise shot passing the time before they wake up is reused.

That’s what kills the movie is the lack of surprise. It throws the guys into a different setting, gets darker and meaner, but it’s rarely funny. I was surprised how many jokes left me in stony silence. Phillips and his screenwriters have gotten into the trouble of having to top themselves, so they rely on the “bigger is better” approach to match the outrageousness of the original. If Las Vegas is Sin City, then what would be even seedier? Bangkok, of course. Where would they go for a third film? What gets seedier than Bangkok (The Hangover 3 to be set in Rep. Anthony Weiner’s office). Yet the film curiously ignores much of what makes Bangkok the world’s preeminent hotspot in the sexual trades. The payoffs are darker and lack the bemusement of the original. Knowing some guy is missing a finger is not as whimsical as somebody missing a tooth. The movie has an unpleasant homophobia to it thanks to male genitalia being used to shock and horrify and humiliate. The horror of being involved with transsexual women made my theater audience groan with extra relish, like the presence of a penis or homosexual content makes everything automatically more disgusting to the common people, as if anything gay is the worst thing that could possible befall a man. Mr. Chang is an odious and fairly unfunny stereotype, and Jeong (Role Models, TV’s Community), so funny in just about every other role he’s ever had, is a braying, high-pitched annoyance. This go-round the jokes feel stale, the characters feel tired, and the payoffs seem too mean-spirited to be satisfying.

When you have a movie where the comedy is situation-based, then those situations better be funny because the characters are only serving as a means to an end. The premise allows the filmmakers to have it both ways. They can fulfill the hedonistic spectacle that will make people blush, and at the same time they can have button-uped, likable, relatively relatable nice characters that an audience will root for. If we watched these characters acting like irredeemable morons, then audience sympathy would wan. But having the guys investigate their previous dirty deeds, and react in horror, does not lessen audience sympathy. I enjoyed how the main trio played off each other in the first Hangover, and the central mystery was a solid glue to hold together a loose collection of mostly worthwhile gags. Just as the first film fell short of its potential, so too does the second movie. A monkey serves little purpose other than to get it to do things that seem outrageous just because it’s a monkey (it smokes, it mimes oral sex – hilarious!). But the second time around, the amusement of seeing Stu fly off the handle, or listen to Alan’s moony non-sequitors, doesn’t have the same draw. Galifianakis (Due Date) made the film watchable for me despite the fact that the screenplay makes his character a petulant and highly irritating character rather than a man-child doofus. And the women are once again relegated to the sidelines when it comes to being in on the comedy.

For The Hangover‘s legions of fans, more of the same will likely be exactly what was desired. But without the cheeky element of surprise, the comedy just seems like it’s hitting pre-ordained stops according to its formulaic cheat sheet. For the original Hangover I wrote: “Let’s face it; once you know the solution to the mystery and all the surprises, will this movie still play out as funny? …But once you knew who was behind what, and how the whole game was staged and operated, could you even watch the movie a second time? Would it still work now that a repeat viewer knew all the secrets? Does this comedy have a built-in expiration date?” Well, The Hangover: Part II is the answer. If the first film was a comedy with an expiration date, then The Hangover: Part II is one comedy that’s gone rancid.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Furry Vengeance (2010)

The title alone alerts you that this will not be a pleasant journey. It’s 92 abusive minutes of watching a doughy Brendan Fraser act like he is being tortured by a conspiracy of woodland wildlife. Fraser is a land developer who wants to raze a forest to make way for houses, and nature doesn’t take too kindly. Raccoons, squirrels, birds, bears, and even wild turkeys all take their turn tormenting Fraser. The slapstick is at Looney Tune levels of manic absurdity. Even worse is the ham-fisted environmental message that still manages to be cloying, preachy, and completely naive. This lame eco message may actually encourage people to chop down trees out of sheer spite. After an hour of animals trying to kill him, suddenly Fraser realizes that the forest is their home too. For their furry families. Everyone has the same facial expression of barely concealed embarrassment. Even Fraser deserves better than this family film purgatory he seems to be stuck in while he waits for a phone call confirming another dumb Mummy movie. Furry Vengeance has the rank odor of failure from every frame, and yet the movie hits a new low when the end credits come around. Just when you think you’ve been given your freedom back, the cast breaks out into an end credit rap with snippets of movie parodies from “Furry TV.” It makes no sense except to add one last moment to hold your head in shame.

Nate’s Grade: D

Vampires Suck (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nate’s Grade: D

Couples Retreat (2009)

Vince Vaughn is a likable scamp. He’s generally played the same quick-witted, charming, motor-mouth lout in every movie since 2005’s smash, Wedding Crashers. He’s been working fairly nonstop since then and has, by all accounts, become something of a box office draw, which seems bizarre if you think about it long enough. So the best thing I can say about Vaughn’s new comedy Couples Retreat is, hey, at least he’s making sure his pals can pay the bills.

I think it was that famed poet Pat Benatar who said love is a battlefield. She never went through marriage counseling (note: maybe she did, I don’t care to actually research this). The movie centers around four dysfunctional couples that take a vocational to a tropical island resort. Dave (Vaughn) has trouble prioritizing his wife, Ronnie (Malin Akerman). Joey (Jon Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis) have been together ever since she got pregnant in high school. They’re at each other’s throats and secretly looking to cheat on each other. Jason (Jason Bateman) and his way younger wife, Cynthia (Kristen Bell), are unable to conceive a baby. They’re very organized about their life and cannot handle life’s deviations. Finally, Shane (Faizon Love) has been dumped by his wife and is taking the loss hard. He’s found comfort in a flighty twenty-year-old girl (Kali Hawk) that he can barely keep up with. The vacation is interrupted when the couples learn that they must participate in the resort’s relationship therapy sessions or leave. The couples must stick it out to in order to save failing relationships and ride those nifty Jet skis.

Couples Retreat sure doesn’t feel like any vacation for the audience. Directed by Peter “Ralphie” Billingsley (longtime friend and producing partner for Vaughn and Favreau), the pacing is leaden and the movie feels like its coasting without any momentum. Structurally, the plot is not your series of escalating events but more a relentless parade of tiny plot speed bumps, seemingly indistinguishable from the last. Many scenes just bump right into each other with little transition. Billingsley does not show that he comprehends the rhythms of comedy. Even at a mere 107 minutes, this movie felt twice as long to me. Like Peter Jackson’s King Kong, it just takes way too damn long for these people to get to the freaking island. I don’t need a half hour of setup for stock characters. Many scenes will go on too long and then just sort of come to an abrupt end, like Vaughn and his friends were saying, “Well, we’ve taken this as far as we can go. The scenes don’t end in climaxes or revelations or punch lines, they just end. So after a while I felt like Couples Retreat was one long draggy middle of a mediocre movie stretched out interminably. It’s the equivalent of an eternity of waiting in a doctor’s office.

The character work is haphazard at best. You would think with the premise involving introspection and communication that the screenplay might offer up some deeper characters. You would be mistaken. Each character is given one note/generalized conflict to work, and they stay exactly within that narrow field of play. The male-female dynamics are Joey and Lucy have been together since high school and now they each have wandering eyes. Of course this kind of waffling infidelity is played for such sophomoric yuk-yuks like Joey getting caught masturbating and Joey getting an erection during a massage. You see a trend there? Cynthia and Jason are too anal retentive about their lives and the fun has died out. Sounds like room for some comedy. Oh, and they are also having trouble conceiving, which is way too serious a topic for this kind of movie. It’s somewhat amusing to think of Vaughn as the most stable character in a family comedy; it’s sort of like when Christopher Walken was the voice of reason in 2004’s equally bad, Man on Fire. What is Vaughn’s problem exactly anyway? He’s a “video game seller” who spends too much time… selling video games? The particulars of his job are too nebulous; does he work at a large chain, does he work at a software production company, what does he do that he can’t bother helping out his wife for one afternoon? You could almost certainly eliminate Faizon Love’s character completely. He’s just in the movie to crank out obligatory “older guy with too young girl” jokes, and his resolution is so hackneyed and reliant upon ridiculous coincidence (surprise, his ex-wife has tracked him down to the resort!) that it hurts the brain.

The movie has the benefit of being made in one of the most gorgeous places on earth. I’m sure the cast and crew had a great time making this movie. Too bad it doesn’t translate well to the paying customers. I was surprised at how stodgy the overall film is. I expected it to look down on hedonism, and I appreciated the movie treating marriage as a serious commitment that constantly needs to be engaged, but what is up with how stuffy this message comes across? The people who aren’t in relationships are seen as little party animals looking for their next carefree fix. Sure marriage is going to look better to the masses when you make the alternative so irresponsible. However, prolonging unhappy, extremely dysfunctional couples who can no longer stand each other isn’t helping either. Can’t some dysfunctional couples just grow apart? Why must there be reprehensibly forced happy endings all around? Couples Retreat, after awhile, kind of feels like your grandmother lecturing you about your relationships.

There’s much potential for laughs with Couples Retreat, but you’ll do no better than scattered chuckles. This is definitely a case where all the good jokes were highlighted in the trailer. Couples Retreat squanders so much talent, mostly consisting of a boy’s club and giving the actresses little to do or play off of. Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid), Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and Davis (Sex and the City) are all very capable comedic actresses; Kali Hawk quickly becomes irritating with what she’s been given. The island therapists include the hilarious John Michael Higgins (The Ugly Truth) and Ken Jeong (The Hangover), who must be contractually obligated to appear in every movie this year. I would have thought that eccentric therapists plus the natural conflicts of couples counseling would have provided a wealth of funny material. It’s a shame then that the counseling scenes are kept short. It would be a better asset for this movie if it spent more time in therapy and less time doing goofy, trust building exercises by island guru Jean Reno. Seriously, swimming with sharks is supposed to help a deteriorating marriage how? There are comic setups that look like they’re going to lead to something juicy, and then they just fizzle, like a Guitar Hero battle that goes from silly to lame all too quick. A buff and tan yoga instructor (Carlos Ponce) gets a little too in touchy-feely with his female pupils. But then it stays at a distance, hammering home the same PG-13 safe sight gags. It’s like watching people dry hump for laughs. As I expected, the funniest parts are the naturally combative interplay between Vaughn and Favreau. Part of that may be because they’ve been friends for over a decade and part of that might be that both are credited as screenwriters, along with producer Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas).

Let’s look at how I’ve described Couples Retreat in this review. Waiting in a doctor?s office. Listening to your grandmother condemn your relationship. Doesn’t sound like much of a good time, does it? The comedy consists of mostly one-liners with a whole lot of dead space in between. The characters are so limited, the actors are shamefully wasted, and the comic set pieces are too meandering to be amusing. Somewhere there’s an edgier, R-rated version of this movie that got scrubbed clean to fit a PG-13 mandate. You see glimpses of the naughtier movie Couples Retreat might have been. This is a movie in need of some serious counseling of its own.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Hangover (2009)

The Hangover is the breakout hit of the summer. It’s a simple concept that’s fully executed by Old School director Todd Phillips, the biggest name in the movie is Mike Tyson, and the people are lapping it up. It’s going to become the first comedy to pass the $200 million mark since 2005’s Wedding Crashers. Is it that good? The studio was already planning a sequel before The Hangover was ever released.

Doug (Justin Bartha) is getting married and thus must embark on that last passage of manhood — the bachelor party. Doug and his groomsmen are headed out to Las Vegas for a wild night. Phil (Bradley Cooper) is a handsome science teacher ready to cut loose. Stu (Ed Helms) is a nerdy dentist completely at the command of his icy, domineering girlfriend (Rachael Harris). And then there’s Alan (Zach Galifianakis), Doug’s prospective brother-in-law. Alan is clueless to the point that he asks a hotel clerk if Caesar’s Palace was at one point the emperor’s actual residence. He’s also desperate for some friends and he wants this Vegas trip to be unforgettable. Cut to the next morning and the boys awake to discover their hotel suite in shambles, a tiger in the bedroom, a crying baby on the floor, and Doug is nowhere. Phil, Stu, and Alan have to retrace their steps and fill in the holes of their collective memories.

The central mystery provides surprisingly intriguing glue for all the gags. The idea of Vegas-laden debauchery is practically a cliché of a cliché at this point, especially with how Vegas has been somewhat morphed into a family-friendly Disney Land theme park for adults compared to its mob origins. With that said, the movie hits all the regular Vegas bender exploits you would think it would, which includes, speedy marriage ceremonies, strippers, drugs, gambling. Several of the jokes themselves are somewhat on the cheap side; however, their laugh quotient is elevated by spontaneity and the comic abilities of the cast. The plot to The Hangover is cleverly constructed so that the audience is trying to figure out the latest clues just like the main characters. The movie trades heavily in raunch and crudeness, but this is a comedy that never gets too dark or too mean-spirited; there’s always a playful bemusement at the “What did we do last night?” revelations. Screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) are silly about their naughtiness. It doesn’t go to the limits of good taste like Peter Berg’s pitch-black bachelor party gone wrong comedy, Very Bad Things. That movie, which is a guilty pleasure heavy on the guilt, really looked at the hedonist philosophy about “whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” — including murdered hookers buried in the desert. The Hangover actually comes across like some absurdist film noir, and Phillips shoots the movie like it is a film noir. The cinematography even includes watching a car drive into the desert via the reflection of a man’s sunglasses. The movie looks like a serious film noir, a caper filmed in the rarely seen daylight of Vegas, which only makes everything that happens even funnier.

The Hangover is consistently funny once the boys get to Vegas. Beforehand it’s all setup, and generally setups are not that funny because they lay ground for the punchlines to come later. There are well-executed running gags and then there are also missed opportunities, like the baby and the surprise wedding. Certainly a newly discovered baby offers better gags than miming the little fella masturbating. The jokes themselves aren’t terribly sophisticated (hence: male nudity = laughs, taser to the balls = bigger laughs) and plot revelations, like how Stu lost his tooth, can be letdowns. The screenplay speeds through its comic setups too quickly, briskly running to the next and leaving little room to settle. A healthy dose of the adolescent humor is unmemorable from other crass-fests, but the setups allow the actors to bounce off each other for better jokes. The best laughs come from the threesome of dudes just ping-ponging back and forth in the moment. The end credits finally reveal what really happened that debased night, and the montage of pictures serves as a meaty, satisfying payoff to 90 minutes of sophomoric setup. It’s a terrific way to get the audience laughing all the way to the parking lot.

The humor is mostly situation based. The characters all fall under comedy archetypes (henpecked husband, loudmouth, socially inept doofus) but it’s the interaction and male camaraderie between the actors that made me smile the most. Cooper (He’s Just Not That Into You) is full of smarm but he comes across like a less manic, still self-absorbed and obnoxious version of his jerky character from Wedding Crashers. His main job is to center the other two actors. Galifianakis (The Comedians of Comedy) is the go-to source for the screenplay’s laughs and his role makes good use of his talents. He plays a buffoon without an ounce of self-awareness, which gives the character a touch of sweetness even as he bumbles in total social awkwardness. He plays the character straight and innocent, which makes his moony behavior more unnerving and yet acceptable at the same time. But for me, this is Helms’ movie. The supporting actor from TV’s The Office has honed comedic chops, which explains how he can find the perfect tone for an uptight, hopeless, delusional dentist to be sympathetic and not overly pathetic. He comes completely undone over the course of the film’s events and Helms bounces off the walls in hysterics.

Like other Phillips movies, specifically Old School, the women not only get shortchanged as comedy characters but they are presented in an unflattering light. Essentially, the women are either vicious, soul-sucking shrews or exploitative whores. It’s not exactly an enlightened atmosphere but then again The Hangover is a vulgar comedy set in Sin City. The nicest female character is portrayed by Heather Graham (Boogie Nights) as a breastfeeding prostitute (“I’m a stripper. Well, I’m an escort but stripping is a great way to meet the clients.”). I’m not asking for every comedy to be written from a feminist standpoint, but it’s disconcerting when the women in a comedy only get to be the jokes instead of being in on the jokes. The extremely flamboyant, overripe gay Asian mobster (Ken Jeong of Role Models) ensures that women aren’t alone in getting marginalized for giggles.

Let’s face it; once you know the solution to the mystery and all the surprises, will this movie still play out as funny? I think perhaps Phillips has crafted a comedic version of The Game, David Fincher’s 1997 thriller that plucked Michael Douglas into a crazy “what the hell is going on?” trip down the rabbit hole. But once you knew who was behind what, and how the whole game was staged and operated, could you even watch the movie a second time? Would it still work now that a repeat viewer knew all the secrets? Does this comedy have a built-in expiration date? I think The Hangover will lose some of its appeal once the surprises are all out in the open, but I think the chemistry of the cast and some of the riffs on Vegas will still earn chuckles even on multiple viewings. This isn’t the instant classic that its rapid grosses and frothing word-of-mouth might have you believe, but The Hangover is an enjoyable guys-gone-wild trip down the empty road of Vegas hedonism.

Nate’s Grade: B

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