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Super Troopers 2 (2018)

Sixteen years after the original film, Super Troopers 2 is coming to theaters thanks to a record-breaking campaign on the fundraising site Indiegogo. The comedy team, Broken Lizard, finds itself somewhat in a similar lace Rob Thomas and the Veronica Mars team did after their successful Kickstarter haul got them a feature film. It’s primarily the fans that have supplied the funds for the project, and in doing so proven a viable audience for any other potential future financial backers. Therefore, when the finished product comes together, are you designing the movie for that core base of fans that may or may not be looking for more of what they enjoyed the first time around. Does servicing the fans outweigh telling something original and expanding the brand? Credit to the Broken Lizard team that very few of the jokes from the first film are outright repeated and there are sparing references in general to the earlier movie. Super Troopers 2 exists on its own merits; however, it feels like a shaggy, and amiable if mostly lackluster comedy.

In the years since the first film, the state troopers for Vermont have been reassigned to a new task. The Canadian border is being renegotiated, and a swath of Canada is now going to be declared American territory. The troopers, Mac (Steve Lemme), Rabbit (Erik Stolhanske), Thorny (Jay Chandrasekhar, also serving as director again), Foster (Paul Soter), and Farva (Kevin Hefferman), are reunited with their old Captain (Brian Cox) and entrusted by the Governor (Lynda Carter) and a local, small town mayor (Rob Lowe) with upholding law and order. The guys uncover a smuggling conspiracy that plans on using the switching border to great financial gain, but mostly they just mess with people.

All the guys are back and they’re back to their old hijinks and now they’re all pushing fifty, which makes things feel a little weird. The Super Troopers style of comedy is pretty juvenile, silly, slapstick-heavy, with the occasional meta-textual aside. It’s a low-key sort of comedy that provides chuckles but rarely the bigger, memorable laughs. Your mileage will vary, as all comedies do, but I chuckled about five to ten times in the movie. There are a couple solid running jokes that are nicely set up for payoffs, like an oft-referred to tragic accident involving Fred Savage and the troopers. There are glimpses of a stranger, more interesting comedy here that will never be seen, like an opening segment that takes some unexpected turns. The Super Troopers 2 that ends up on screen feels a bit like a flailing act that is still trying to find laughs after the joke ends.

The plot doesn’t matter in this kind of movie so much as the jokes, and the quality of jokes is rather mediocre, falling back on tired tropes and dated stereotypes. The jokes about Canada rehash lots of well-worn clichés about our neighbors to the north (hockey, vowels, politeness, hockey). Here’s an example of the untapped potential for the comedy. There’s a funny bit where Farva goes to a local restaurant, discovers a buy-ten-liters-get-a-free-dessert punch card offer, and orders ten liters of soda to drink all at once. It’s drawn out in a way that feels like it’s going to be the setup for a big punch line. The man has ten liters of soda occupying his bladder. I’m thinking maybe Farva’s powerful stream of urine will save the day unexpectedly from the villains at a fortunate moment. At least something, right? All that happens is he’s later seen peeing in the woods. That’s it. Why even bother with something as outlandish as this setup if there is no inspired payoff?

Worse, there are entire lanes of humor that feel painfully dated, unfunny, and like leftovers from an earlier version of the script from the early 2000s. Thorny becomes addicted to female hormone pills (“Flova Scotia”) and behaved with tired gender tropes like becoming overly emotional and bitchy (see, it’s funny because… that’s what ladies… yeah…). It’s Thorny’s whole character for the movie and it feels so depressingly lazy. You get a sense that everyone was so happy to be back together that the comedy development took a back seat to the fun of the reunion. It feels like a loose collection of untapped comedy premises. Super Troopers 2 has a lot of free time and for a good while becomes a wacky, prank battle between the Americans and Canucks. It’s just that a group of fifty-year-old dudes behaving like children can come across as past its prime comedy without further characterization.

As someone who found the original Super Troopers to be overrated, what saved the sequel for me was the exuberance of the performances to balance out the lackluster laughs. The Broken Lizard guys have built up an outstanding chemistry and camaraderie together over the course of several decades. These guys an be very funny and they go above and beyond to sell their zany jokes and larger-than-life characters, best typified with Hefferman (Sky High). Farva is meant to be obvious, obnoxious, and buffoonish, and my God does Hefferman seem to be exploding with energy. His spirited line readings seem to exercise every muscle in his face. It’s so committed and enthusiastic that Hefferman elevates okay jokes into newly funny jokes. In a similar fashion, the Canadian side characters played by Will Sasso, Tyler Labine, and Hayes MacArthur provide some genuine laughs from their hyperactive and at times incomprehensible cartoon Mounties. Every time they were onscreen I knew I would, at minimum, be amused. Watching skilled performers have fun and actually put forth a worthy effort is a recipe that can make an otherwise boring comedy worth watching, and that’s Super Troopers 2. I must also add that the Broken Lizard guys have aged tremendously well and look remarkably similar to how they did in the mid 2000s. Chandrasekhar even appears shirtless and with a toned physique. Again, all pushing fifty. Congrats on the amazing genetics, gang.

The Broken Lizard guys may have not had a comedy released since 2009’s The Slammin’ Salmon and haven’t had a theatrically released film since 2006’s Beerfest. Perhaps their time of relevance as a comedic group has come and gone, so it makes sense to go back to their biggest hit. The original Super Troopers may have been their breakout but I still find their first film, 1996’s Puddle Cruiser, as the group’s best. It’s a sweet rom-com with enjoyable characters and wit. I’ve enjoyed the ideas and performances in several of their movies, but their first film managed to bring it all together the best (I think the crazier Beerfest is their second best). Even with lesser material, the Broken Lizard guys have a genial, likable screen chemistry that can smooth over comedy misfires and dropped potential. Super Troopers 2 is like a reheated meal you remember enjoying but lacks that same sense of flavor. You could do worse but you could also certainly do better.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Veronica Mars (2014)

rs_634x945-140110122132-634.veronica-mars.cm.11013More people know the name Veronica Mars now than probably combined from its short-run on TV from 2004-2007, and that’s squarely because of its record-breaking haul brought in through the fundraising site, Kickstarter. Within hours, the project had already raised two million dollars, on its way to over five and a half million, enough for a long-awaited movie that fans have been teased with ever since the series cancellation. Creator Rob Thomas and his actors were beside themselves in gratitude to their fans (dubbed “marshmallows”). Fueled by the eager hopes of its fans, the movie went into production and is now available for digital download to many of its donors and in a handful of theaters.

Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) has left behind her hometown of Neptune, California. She’s on the verge of signing with a major New York law firm, and an old friend comes calling. Veronica’s former flame, Logan (Jason Dohring), has recently lost his pop star girlfriend, also a Neptune graduate. He’s suspected of being the killer but he swears his innocence. With the promise of her assistance only lasting a few days, she flies back home and reunited with her old friends (Mac, Wallace, Weevil, Dick) and her father, private investigator Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni). Veronica should go back to New York with her boyfriend Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell), she should accept the job offer from the firm, but she can’t help herself fall back into old patterns. She misses the danger, the intrigue, and maybe enough, Logan himself.

VERONICA MARSThe curious case of Veronica Mars: The Movie is that it was truly made for the fans, those 90,000 people who contributed to their Kickstarter goal. It’s not made for the casual moviegoer who has no foundation with the television series. That’s not to say that Thomas doesn’t try and make the film more inclusive. The neophyte could reasonably follow along, and there is a fast-paced prologue to catch the audience up on the major developments of the series, though almost all from season one. A non-fan could watch this movie but I have no idea what they would get out of it because they would be missing all the connections and context that provide the depth. In a way, this situation reminds me of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Unless you were a fan of Lynch’s iconic thought short-lived TV series, there was no way you were going to follow along or be interesting in following along. It was a movie made for its fan base, and there’s nothing wrong with that though it always helps to provide enough entertainment to prove to the newbies why they should be fans in the first place. I don’t think the Veronica Mars film is able to achieve this. Sure, I enjoyed myself but that was because of my pre-existing fan club and my years-in-the-making desire to finally see proper closure to the characters I came to care about. I feel like someone without that devotion would watch the 105 minutes of Veronica Mars and question what all the fuss was about.

That’s because at feature-length, Veronica Mars is really more of an extended episode of the TV show, and not one of the top tier episodes. As a debut film director, Thomas does a serviceable job of recreating the series noir visuals. The mystery is sufficient if a little dull, lacking a strong sense of urgency throughout most since Logan is already walking around free of charges. The real anchor of the story is bringing Veronica back to Neptune and bringing her back into the family business. The class injustice was a hallmark of the TV series but it’s merely one more slightly malnourished storyline cluttering up the narrative. There are no real reasons to check in on so many characters beyond the fact that it provides resolution for fans. A ten-year high school reunion seems engineered just for this purpose, allowing the new old faces to all reappear again and catch us up. There are characters that appear in near-cameo form (though the surprise celebrity cameo is quite amusing). Even the romance feels mostly grafted onto the story because the core audience demands Veronica and Logan reunite, in all senses. It just becomes a matter of time waiting for the inevitable, as it is with all romantic comedies, except the romance is sidelined here until it isn’t. As a film, it doesn’t feel organically handled that Veronica would leap back into Logan’s arms, and so soon, unless, of course, you are one of those fans (I know MANY) who have been waiting seven years for that moment. Fan service is one thing but it shouldn’t detract from the internal logic of the featured story.

vm3What does still work are all the hallmarks of the TV show, even if they are less effectively showcased for first-timers. The plucky, sarcastic nature of Veronica still turns her into a heroine worth rooting for, a force of will that has her flaws as well. Bell (Frozen, TV’s House of Lies) can just about do it all, from goofy to heartfelt to ferocious. It’s clear how much she adores this character she helped bring to life ten years ago. The father/daughter relationship is warmly affectionate without dipping into sappy territory. The dialogue is still snappy, though having late twenty-somethings saying it rather than high schoolers has dulled some of the edge. There’s also the sleazy addition of older men hitting on Veronica now that she’s officially out of high school, so hooray. The season-long mysteries of the series, while satisfying and twisty, were secondary to the characters, and watching the overall jovial camaraderie of the cast, is a reminder at how much fans adore these people.

I can objectively critique the faults in the film, as I’ve tried to do for a couple paragraphs, but this is a movie where I set aside my critic hat and merge with the fans. I too contributed to the Kickstarter because I’ve been dying for a sense of closure for one of the best TV shows in the mid-aughts. The finale of season three left much of the show in doubt; Thomas was not counting on cancellation. While fan fiction can run rampant in these circumstances in order to cater to fan demands, it doesn’t compare to the creator being given a reprieve to tie up as many loose ends as possible. That’s the greatest accomplishment of the Veronica Mars movie is that it feels like a genuinely satisfying sense of closure for the fans. While not every storyline is wrapped up, like for instance Weevil’s path, it ends on a point where you can reasonably guess where the characters would continue from here onward if we were never to check in with them again. This is a good resting place. But given the runaway success of the Kickstarter campaign, maybe Warner Brothers could be convinced there are more stories to be told here. I’m cautiously optimistic but really Thomas has already given the fans just about everything they could want, unless they were the Veronica/”Piz” minority of shippers.

Whatever you think of the final product, Veronica Mars: The Movie has changed the way movies can get financed. Smaller boutique films with a passionate fanbase can now get the ball rolling, putting their money into a down payment on seeing their dream movie becomes a reality, convincing studio heads to roll the dice with less risk. I invite all newcomers to watch the series, since that is where it was best. As a film, it’s enjoyable enough and satisfying for the fervent fans, supplying needed closure. However, for people that don’t already have connections to these characters and this world, I don’t think there’s enough going on in the movie to attract a larger discipleship.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Canyons (2013)

large_qtKExvkEHDWf5hcN3BRLZ8tWrCYBefore Veronica Mars success on the high-profile crowd-sourced fundraising site Kickstarter, there was The Canyons. Written by novelist Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho, Less Than Zero) and directed by Oscar-nominee Paul Schrader (Affliction, Taxi Driver), it promised to be a more legit opportunity for fans to fund a real movie, something they could actually see on the big screen. The production successfully raised a budget of $150,000 with rewards like script coverage by Schrader, working out at the gym with Ellis and his physical trainer, and Robert DeNiro’s moneyclip from Taxi Driver. The little production that could got even more press when tabloid darling Lindsay Lohan was cast as the female lead. The New York Times released a lengthy blow-by-blow in January of the tumultuous film shoot, mostly centered around Lohan and her antics. It was a fascinating read. The Canyons is a better behind-the-scenes news article than a competent sexy thriller. The best actor in the film is a prominent male porn star. Make of that what you will.

In the City of Angels, Christian (James Deen) is spinning a web of deceit. He regularly invites other men over to have sex with his girlfriend, Tara (Lohan). His assistant, Gina (Amanda Brooks), has a boyfriend, Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), who wants to be an actor. She convinces Christian to offer him a small part. It just so happens that Ryan and Tara used to date back when they were struggling actors. They’ve also started a new affair. Christian suspects something is amiss and schemes to punish and destroy Ryan and his dreams of Hollywood fame. Meanwhile Ryan is trying to scheme himself to get Tara to finally leave the rich and luxurious clutches of Christian.

linday_lohan_james_deen_the_canyonsWoe to thee expecting a plot or characters worth watching. Despite the presence of artistic heavyweights like Ellis and Schrader, The Canyons is a movie that does a disservice to the word bland. This movie is powerfully bland. There’s just nothing to attach to other than the fascination of Lohan. The characters are posh, privileged, unlikable, and morally slipshod, which is the Ellis specialty. Except in the past he’s given them personalities to go along with their nihilistic narcissism. Christian is a pale likeness of Patrick Bateman and has no charisma or intriguing sense of darkness to him, something to keep you watching. Mostly he’s just a jerk. But he’s not even an interesting jerk. The plot is a merry-go-round of infidelity, as numerous characters have secret paramours, which makes their cumulative jealousy all the more absurd. What does Christian have to get so upset about? He invites men and women over to have sex with Tara. They even engage in a foursome. I suppose there is the limp argument that he’s not in control, but how tedious is that? Ultimately, you’re watching Bland Character A complain to Bland Character B about how unhappy Bland Character C makes them. This scenario repeats many times. I wish there was more gratuitous nudity to hold my attention. It’s a soap opera that you want to turn off. The entire screenplay feels like weak, reheated Ellis depravity without anything memorable.

Here’s an example of how lazy the screenwriting gets: after Christian is done having sex with Cynthia (Tenille Houston), a yoga teacher (that’s one way of doing it), they relax. In this scene, Cynthia asks questions that have no real purpose other than to advance exposition, and it’s sorely obvious. It’s all, “What did she mean by that?” and, “Why would you go to this place?” Every screenplay has exposition but the trick is to make it as invisible as possible. Pacific Rim did a particularly great job at masking its exposition so that it arrived in a way that didn’t feel like the plot was stalling. The fact that Ellis doesn’t even put forth any effort to disguise what is naked and clunky exposition just speaks to an overall sense of lethargy or indifference on his part with the script. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ellis knocked this out over one long, monotonous weekend.

The other mortal misstep is that Schrader makes the movie so serious that you’ll find yourself laughing at spots. This is not great material to begin with, nor compelling characters, but it could have, emphasis on “could,” worked had the production embraced its silly sense of luridness. There’s a reason we’re more forgiving of late-night thrillers with copious amounts of vice. They accept their identity. I think Schrader may have read Ellis’ lackluster script and envisioned another Looking for Mr. Goodbar (I’m not confusing it with Schrader’s own American Gigolo). This is not a morality tale but Schrader seems to think otherwise. I don’t sense any cohesive commentary about young people and their sexual mores or the predominance of technology and its negative impact on human connection. Christian and Tara text at the dinner table. He films “movies” on his phone of their sexual trysts with strangers culled from Craigstlist. There’s a big difference just including these items and actually having something to say. Schrader opens and closes the film with montages of rundown movie theaters, many shuttered up and long out of business. What am I supposed to decipher from this exactly? Tara asks Gina, who works in the movies, when was the last time she went and saw a movie, a film that honestly made her feel something. Gina is stumped, but that’s all you get for that thematic reference. Is Schrader taking out his ire on the state of Hollywood filmmaking and the studio system? Regardless, you won’t feel anything form The Canyons either.

lohan-canyons1So what truly is the draw here? Why would someone want to watch this movie? The only factor I can surmise, beyond morbid curiosity, is the presence of Lohan. I doubt this movie would seem as compelling absent the troubled actress. Would people be clamoring to see this movie if it starred, say, Hilary Duff instead? She’s been out of the limelight seemingly as long as Lohan but she’s also had a stable personal life. I won’t pretend I’m above this. I watched The Canyons out of sheer curiosity, and that inquisitiveness hinged upon Lohan. She hasn’t starred in a theatrically released movie since 2007’s I Know Who Killed Me (my #2 worst film of that year), and she’s fresh off the infamous Lifetime movie of Elizabeth Taylor that many websites turned into a derisive drinking game. There’s an undeniable rubbernecking quality here not to mention the prurient promise of Lohan taking off her clothes. To pacify the curious, Lohan has two scenes where she goes topless, one during the aforementioned foursome. If you’re planning a hot night home alone with you and your VOD, good luck trying to make sense of that foursome. It’s shot with all these blinky lasers bouncing off people’s writhing bodies, losing just about whatever small sensuality the scene may have gained. I’d expect the scenes to land on the Internet in a matter of days, if not hours, so that salient selling point will be moot. Lohan’s acting on the other hand is less deserving of attention. There are a few moments where it feels like character and actress have merged, and her crying jags about lost opportunities, dreams gone awry, feel inescapably real for her. I think she would have been better served with a less solemn tone and more sudsy and sundry thrills.

Deen has the best feel for Ellis’ pulpy material, and while he doesn’t really click as a menacing figure even as he’s murdering people (he’s too much a Jewish boy next door type), he does come across as a megalomaniacal creep. Perhaps my expectations were just too low for a porn actor, so my apologies for my prejudices. Given the right material, Deen may surprise (not by his full-frontal nude scene). I do think that Katie Morgan (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) has the ability to transcend porn. She’s just so effortlessly charming, something that most of the actors in The Canyons have trouble with. Funk (House at the End of the Street) cannot get a good grip on his character’s emotions and thus he just seems pissy all the time. I’ll spare the other actors mentioning but I feel the need to inform that Oscar-nominated director Gus Van Sant plays Christian’s trust fund-mandated therapist. Guess what doesn’t work well?

Those seeking an outrageous exploitation film filled with soapy sex and intrigue, as well as pretty people behaving very badly, will be surely disappointed with The Canyons. I guess it all depends on your expectation level for a film that bypassed the traditional financial system and crowd-sourced on the basis of Schrader and Ellis’ notoriety. I’m glad that both artists found a conduit for collaboration and found a way to make it happen on the (relative) cheap. I just don’t know why it had to be this crummy story. Thematically, Schrader and Ellis seem to be completely at odds, which results in a super serious movie about terrible, and terribly boring, characters doing little else but indulging in vices and whining (also a vice?). Without the presence of Lohan to add a curiosity factor, there is honestly no good reason to spend good money on this dithering project. The moderate success of The Canyons is somewhat comforting, but really, this wasn’t a movie that deserved people’s donations, and it certainly doesn’t deserve your time.

Nate’s Grade: D+

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