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Bong of the Living Dead (2017)

I’m in a movie. That’s a pretty vain opening sentence but I wanted to get it out of the way. I was one of the very fortunate horror fans to attend the Nightmares Film Festival, which in two short years has already vaulted to being one of the top film festivals in the nation. I came to see the premiere of Bong of the Living Dead, a stoner zombie comedy that filmed in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio back in 2013 (oh what a simpler time). I had the good fortune to be a zombie extra, and wouldn’t you know, my shambling, bloody, stupid self made the final cut. I mention this not out of braggadocio but out of a desire for transparency. I am friends with many of the people in front of and behind the camera on this movie. I have personal connections to the production, Backwards Slate, and I’ve worked with several of the actors on other projects and plan to work with them again. I am going to write the most objective review I can for the film, as you would expect of me dear reader, but you should know of my potential personal biases. I was really dreading writing a review if the movie sucked. Happily, Bong of the Living Dead is still an enjoyably fun comedy even if you regrettably don’t happen to know anyone involved.

The zombie apocalypse is coming to Clintonville, Ohio, and our group of stoner friends has been waiting their entire lives for this moment. Childhood friends Hal Rockwood (Dan Alan Kiely), Christ Moser (Eric Boso), Tara Callahan (Laura E. Mock), and Jon Lance (Dan Nye) spend most of their time smoking pot and pontificating on the minutia of zombie pop culture. Christ is trying to hook up with a spacey new girl, Danielle DeWitt (Cat Taylor), and Tara and Jon seem to have something unspoken between them. Dr. Kate Mitchell (Tiffany Arnold) has been hearing strange cases of an infection passed through biting. Sure enough, the dead rise up and feast on the flesh of the living, and our stoners barricade themselves inside their house and gear up for the onslaught to come.

This feels like it was plucked out of the 90s, and I do not mean that as a criticism at all. It feels like the kind of movie Kevin Smith would have made in his geeky prime (a mischievous recitation of randy porn titles seems wholly inspired from Smith). The core idea allows genre satire as well as genre self-indulgence: what if a group of pop-culture savvy potheads became embroiled in the zombie apocalypse? They speak in rapid-fire, hyper-verbal references because that’s how they process the world, as one long catalogue of pop-culture footnotes and influences. These characters are downright giddy with the prospect of finally getting to live within the realm of some of their favorite horror cinema, plus the added bonus of violence without a wider set of consequences. They get to be the stars of their own movie now. Except, to the credit of writers Tim Mayo and Max Groah, they don’t even know that they’re still the bit players. They oversleep a zombie cleanup mission and wake up late into the morning to discover much of their neighbors having already taken care of the task (one of them makes the entrepreneurial step of starting a zombie-aided car wash). Hal can’t hide his disappointment: “The whole point of the zombie apocalypse is that there’s not supposed to be any people around.” The apocalypse isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, and so the characters retreat and sulk, their knowledge of pop-culture raising their expectations to a level that could not be fulfilled.

It’s this clever undercutting of genre expectations where Bong of the Living Dead breaks from the mold of other zombie comedies. These characters are obsessively aware of zombie lore, and it’s a safe bet that a majority of the audience will have a loving knowledge base as well. They quickly accept their world-ending situation and it barely fazes them, perhaps still too inured by the inoculating effect of comparing it to the movies. It keeps the reality of the horror at a safe distance. Even while boarding up windows they can’t help but argue the merits of fast zombies versus slow zombies. A character makes a meta reference to breaking out a weapon that has never before been mentioned, and it was a big gut-busting laugh. Another clever undercutting is when the film transforms into more of a drama in the last act. I don’t know if enough has been established to make the leap from the Act One cartoon versions of the characters to the Act Three dramatic versions, but it was an interesting and unexpected development.

There’s one scene in particular that really exemplifies this dramatic pivot best while still undercutting the genre expectations (some spoilers). After all the close calls and zombie bashing, a character collapses and convulses not from having been bitten but simply from an ordinary and common medical emergency. The other characters are helpless and we watch the fear permeate the scene as everyone comes to the awful realization that this person is going to die from and there’s nothing that can be done. The panic in people’s eyes is genuine. This moment is without setup but I think it works better that way, placing the audience in the same confused and helpless position as the other characters. Groah, as director, gives the scene its necessary breathing room.  In this world people can still die in ordinary, everyday ways, and death is not something that’s cool and distant. It’s terrifyingly real.

The loose, genial vibe of the overall production seeps into the script as well, especially during the lackadaisical second act that involves a lot of our characters just sitting around. Bong is a movie that finds time for little comic arias that other movies would blithely skip over. The loose feel allows the movie to find extra weirdness. There’s an ongoing run of silly media satire that reminded me of Paul Verhoeven’s social commentary. There’s a glib news anchor (Ralph Scott) trying to make the most of the dour news cycles, an opportunistic politician (Vidas Bardzukas) already promising to protect his constituency, a spookily spastic exercise host, a Spanish shopping channel host making love to the camera with his eyes, and a series of cheesy barbarian movies called Swords and Bitches with an evil whip-wielding arachnid queen (Brianne Jeanette). Bong of the Living Dead is chock full of little comical asides that you wouldn’t expect to be so good.

Though it’s also during the second act that I wish more had been going on. I wanted more examination on the difference between their perception of a zombie apocalypse and the reality they’re stuck with. I wanted a bit more setup for the payoffs, like maybe revealing that smoking pot slows down the zombie virus, etc. I wanted more of the VHS-quality flashbacks with the perfectly cast younger versions of the main gang. There aren’t as many central plot elements to make the bridge from start to finish. For much of the middle period, our characters kind of just sit around. They hang out, debate cereal superiority, and even go to the last remaining video store on Earth. It feels a bit like the movie is stuck in neutral, which might have also been the point to communicate the characters’ general malaise. I understand the absurdity of asking for more plot in a stoner comedy but this isn’t any ordinary stoner comedy, as its dovetail into heavy drama indicates. The first act is a lot of fun, the third act is effectively dramatic, but I wanted a bit more connective tissue. The characters could have been better developed (what exactly do they do when not smoking?) but I still cared when things got serious.

The performances across the board are good to great, with every actor, no matter how small the part, finding their specific comedic lane to work within. The biggest breakout performer is definitely Kiely (Axe Giant, Horrors of War) who is, to put it in a topical and never-to-be-dated analogy, the Tiffany Haddish of this particular Girls Trip. He goes above and beyond the call of duty to keep you entertained. Hal is the character that gets the most excited about the zombie apocalypse. The other characters are interesting but fairly subdued for the most part, as one would expect prolific stoners to behave. When Hal first sees a confirmed zombie, his wide-eyed expression is like a child on Christmas morning, and it’s the biggest applause moment for the film. Kiely is a live wire of energy that jolts every scene he’s in. His eyes speak a devilish madness. He reminded me of Jason Lee’s raucous debut in Mallrats, a full force that sweeps you away. After watching Bong of the Living Dead, you’ll wish every movie had a Dan Kiely in it.

The rest of the ensemble find their moments, giving all the other moments to Kiely and his glorious beard. Arnold (Born Again, Seven Hells) is playing the most straight-laced of all the characters, a doctor trying to make sense of the irrational. Arnold has an instant screen presence and poise that causes you to sit up and pay attention. Her softer moments shared with Hal also help provide a nice antidote for the no-nonsense doctor. As much as Kiely is the draw of our attention, it’s Arnold that is often the one who grounds the picture. Boso (Underground 35) relentlessly pushes his character outside the box of socially awkward outcast. There’s a heaviness he feels from the consequences of getting close to others, and he doesn’t know fully how to deal with his frustrations with himself and the apocalypse, so he embraces his darker, nihilistic impulses. Boso is such a memorable film presence that it feels like he stepped off the set of a Richard Linklater film. Cat Taylor has a charming sense of daffy innocence to her. You can’t tell whether she’s dazed, cheerful, or not altogether there, and it fits very well for her character joining the group. She reminded me of Hannah Murray from the BBC’s Skins series. Nye (Harvest Lake, Dark Iris) is movie star handsome and has some sharp moments of comic aloofness. The romantic undercurrent he shares with Mock (The Tribunal) allows both of them something at stake that the audience can invest in. Nye and Mock have good heated exchanges that wake up the audience and allow each actor to effectively broaden their character range.

And then there are the little performances that make the most of their abbreviated screen time, like Ralph Scott’s (Stitches) wonderful clench-jawed bravado, Bardukas’ (The New Mr. Phillips) hilarious loose-elbow springiness in front of a green screen, Bill Koruna’s (The Shoes) crotchety neighbor, Ben Brown (After) as a powerfully self-loathing jock jerk who is wonderful fun to hate, Sarah Starr as a ditzy and easily bored sex object prone to gratuitous nudity, and the entire team inside the Conan-esque barbarian videos are a hoot for how committed they are to being silly. Just thinking about the Spanish home shopping host and his faces makes me smile and giggle to myself.

Bong of the Living Dead is a shaggy, scrappy, loose and lively zombie comedy with a charm all its own. It’s reliably fun and finds hidden gems of comedy from its deep supporting cast of oddballs. The main characters do fine work pushing at the boundaries of their stock archetypes, with Kiely as the wild man standout. There’s a definite love for the material here, over zombies and dumb comedies and the bonds of friendship. It’s evident in the care taken to creating a movie that doesn’t seem like it was churned out of a Hollywood assembly line, or something calculatingly checking the genre boxes (though the nudity does seem to linger a bit long…). Not everything always works but it’s a movie that tries a multitude of options. Bong of the Living Dead zigs instead of zags, undercutting the characters and our own expectations, finding ways to surprise as well as elate, and that includes going all-in on drama toward the end. It’s a silly movie that just might make you feel something by the time the credits roll. I don’t know what the release plans are for this homegrown horror flick, so stay alert for it on the horizon. Toke up, Backwards Slate Productions. You’ve earned it.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016)

zac-efron-neighbors-2-poster-baywatch-set-01The first Neighbors was a pleasant surprise, a gross-out comedy with heart, cross-generational appeal, and a surprising degree of sincere attention to round out its cast and supporting characters. For my money it was a comedy that checked all the boxes. Now two years later comes a sequel that looks to repeat just about all the plot mechanics of the first except with a sorority replacing the fraternity. It looks like it’s checking the standard more-of-the-same sequel boxes. I was again pleasantly surprised, especially how little Neighbors 2 repeated the comic setups and jokes of the original (the malignant comedy disease known as Austin Powers Sequel Syndrome) and how much I still enjoyed these characters. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are now expecting their second child and trying to sell their house. They have to pass a 30-day escrow period without their buyers rescinding their purchase. That’s when Chloe Grace Moritz transforms the next door home into an off-campus sorority. She’s appalled at the gross and derogatory nature of fraternity-hosted parties and an unfairly arbitrary rule that sororities can’t host parties. She and a couple one-note stock fiends throw a female-friendly party house (Feminist Icon parties and bawling your eyes out to The Fault in Our Stars) where they won’t cotton to uncheck male ego. I was laughing throughout the movie with some big laughs at key points. Rogen and Byrne maintain a wonderful comic dynamic and the warring generations premise can still produce plenty of entertaining set pieces. The jokes can be sly and come at you from different angles, taking you be surprise (a “bun in the oven” joke had me almost spit out my drink). There are some things that don’t quite work, mostly how listless and self-involved the female coeds come across and some of their hollow arguments in the name of feminism. I guess equality does mean that women can behave as badly as men. Neighbors 2 replaces a bit of the heart of the first film with an excess of slapstick. There’s also a weird corporate synergistic tie-in with Minions that never quite settles. Still, Neighbors 2 is a satisfying sequel that reminds you what you enjoyed about the first film while not being indebted to what made it succeed.

Nate’s Grade: B

Keanu (2016)

keanu_1sht_main_vert_2764x4096_dom_masterJordan Peele and Keegan Michael-Key are gifted comedic performers, as often evidenced from their often-brilliant sketch comedy show Key & Peele. It was only a matter of time before they made the leap to feature-film players, and Keanu is a suitable springboard for the gents that portends to even better future results. Relying upon mistaken identity bluffs, Peele and Key play a pair of relatively straight-laced men who pretend to be violent gangsters in order to retrieve Peele’s stolen kitten. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t feel like an overextended sketch though it does have its narrative detours that dawdle (a celebrity drug deal is padded out with far too few jokes), running jokes that hold on for a beat too long and then some (the George Michael fascination culminates in a drug sequence that does absolutely nothing), and there are missed opportunities that seem obvious (Key using his new gangster friends to intimidate a man making advances on his wife). Will Forte’s hip-hop loving drug dealer feels like a character nobody knew what to do with, including Forte. What doesn’t disappoint is the natural comic chemistry of its leads as well as the movie’s ability to surprise, zigging rather than zagging, and finding small jokes just as satisfying as larger set pieces. I enjoyed when the guys’ insecurity butted against their bravado, like when Peele is trying to deflect credit for helping his new pal to do some very bad things. The onscreen action is somewhere between the wackier world of 21 Jump Street and the grisly, unfunny world of Pineapple Express but at least the filmmakers realize that an action-comedy still needs to present its action through a comic lens. I was laughing consistently throughout though it was mostly at a chuckle level, if I were to be honest. Keanu is a fairly fun comedy that you can’t help but think could have been more refined during its structureless periods, but then another joke appears and it’s hard to get too upset with the final enterprise. Keanu is funny enough but you sense that a better vehicle is on the horizon for these two gifted comedians. Oh and the cat is powerfully adorable.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Inherent Vice (2014)

309431id1h_InherentVice_Teaser_27x40_1Sheet_6C.inddThis is one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever had to write. It’s not because I’m torn over the film; no, it’s because this review will also serve as my break-up letter. Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA), we’re just moving in two different directions. We met when we were both young and headstrong. I enjoyed your early works Paul, but then somewhere around There Will be Blood, things changed. You didn’t seem like the PTA I had known to love. You became someone else, and your films represented this change, becoming plotless and laborious centerpieces on self-destructive men. Others raved to the heavens over Blood but it left me cold. Maybe I’m missing something, I thought. Maybe the problem is me. Maybe it’s just a phase. Then in 2012 came The Master, a pretentious and ultimately futile exercise anchored by the wrong choice for a main character. When I saw the early advertisements for Inherent Vice I got my hopes up. It looked like a weird and silly throwback, a crime caper that didn’t take itself so seriously. At last, I thought, my PTA has returned to me. After watching Inherent Vice, I can no longer deny the reality I have been ducking. My PTA is gone and he’s not coming back. We’ll always have Boogie Nights, Paul. It will still be one of my favorite films no matter what.

inherent-vice-reese-witherspoonIn the drug-fueled world of 1970 Los Angeles, stoner private eye Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by one of his ex-girlfriends, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She’s in a bad place. The man she’s in love with, the wealthy real estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is going to be conned. Mickey’s wife, and her boyfriend, is going to commit the guy to a mental hospital ward and take control of his empire. Then Shasta and Mickey go missing. Doc asks around, from his police detective contact named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), to an ex (Reese Witherspoon) who happens to be in the L.A. justice department, to a junkie (Jena Malone) with a fancy set of fake teeth thanks to a coked-out dentist (Martin Short) who may be a front for an Asian heroin cartel. Or maybe not. As more and more strange characters come into orbit, Doc’s life is placed in danger, and all he really wants to find out is whether his dear Shasta is safe or not.

Inherent Vice is a shaggy dog detective tale that is too long, too convoluted, too slow, too mumbly, too confusing, and not nearly funny or engaging enough. If it weren’t for the enduring pain that was The Master, this would qualify as Anderson’s worst picture.

One of my main complaints of Anderson’s last two movies has been the paucity of a strong narrative, especially with the plodding Master. It almost felt like Anderson was, subconsciously or consciously, evening the scales from his plot-heavy early works. Being plotless is not a charge one can levy against Inherent Vice. There is a story here with plenty of subplots and intrigue. The problem is that it’s almost never coherent, as if the audience is lost in the same pot haze as its loopy protagonist. The mystery barely develops before the movie starts heaping subplot upon subplot, each introducing more and more characters, before the audience has a chance to process. It’s difficult to keep all the characters and their relationships straight, and then just when you think you have everything settled, the film provides even more work. The characters just feel like they’re playing out in different movies (some I would prefer to be watching), with the occasional crossover. I literally gave up 45 minutes into the movie and accepted the fact that I’m not going to be able to follow it, so I might as well just watch and cope. This defeatist attitude did not enhance my viewing pleasure. The narrative is too cluttered with side characters and superfluous digressions.

The plot is overstuffed with characters, many of which will only appear for one sequence or even one scene, thus polluting a narrative already crammed to the seams with characters to keep track of. Did all of these characters need to be here and visited in such frequency? Doc makes for a fairly frustrating protagonist. He’s got little personality to him and few opportunities to flesh him out. Not having read Thomas Pynchon’s novel, I cannot say how complex the original character was that Anderson had to work with. Doc just seems like a placeholder for a character, a guy who bumbles about with a microphone, asking others questions and slowly unraveling a convoluted conspiracy. He’s more a figure to open other characters up than a character himself. The obvious comparison to the film and the protagonist is The Big Lebowski, a Coen brothers film I’m not even that fond over. However, with Lebowski, the Coens gave us memorable characters that separated themselves from the pack. The main character had a definite personality even if he was drunk or stoned for most of the film. Except for Short’s wonderfully debased and wily five minutes onscreen, every character just kind of washes in and out of your memory, only registering because of a famous face portraying him or her. Even in the closing minutes, the film is still introducing vital characters. The unnecessary narration by musician Joanna Newsome is also dripping with pretense.

-1Another key factor that limits coherency is the fact that every damn character mumbles almost entirely through the entirety of the movie. And that entirety, by the way, is almost two and a half hours, a running time too long by at least 30 minutes, especially when Doc’s central mystery of what happened to Shasta is over before the two-hour mark. For whatever reason, it seems that Anderson has given an edict that no actor on set can talk above a certain decibel level or enunciate that clearly. This is a film that almost requires a subtitle feature. There are so many hushed or mumbled conversations, making it even harder to keep up with the convoluted narrative. Anderson’s camerawork can complicate the matter as well. Throughout the film, he’ll position his characters speaking and slowly, always so slowly, zoom in on them, as if we’re eavesdropping. David Fincher did something similar with his sound design on Social Network, amping up the ambient noise to force the audience to tune their ears and pay closer attention. However, he had Aaron Sorkin’s words to work with, which were quite worth our attention. With Inherent Vice, the characters talk in circles, tangents, and limp jokes. After a protracted setup, and listening to one superficially kooky character after another, you come to terms with the fact that while difficult to follow and hear, you’re probably not missing much.

Obviously, Inherent Vice is one detective mystery where the answers matter less than the journey and the various characters that emerge, but I just didn’t care, period. It started too slow, building a hazy atmosphere that just couldn’t sustain this amount of prolonged bloat and an overload of characters. Anderson needed to prune Pynchon’s novel further. What appears onscreen is just too difficult to follow along, and, more importantly, not engaging enough to justify the effort. The characters fall into this nether region between realism and broadly comic, which just makes them sort of unrealistic yet not funny enough. The story rambles and rambles, set to twee narration that feels like Newsome is just reading from the book, like Anderson could just not part with a handful of prose passages in his translation. Much like The Master, I know there will be champions of this movie, but I won’t be able to understand them. This isn’t a zany Chinatown meets Lewboswki. This isn’t some grand throwback to 1970s cinema. This isn’t even much in the way of a comedy, so be forewarned. Inherent Vice is the realization for me that the Paul Thomas Anderson I fell in love with is not coming back. And that’s okay. He’s allowed to peruse other movies just as I’m allowed to see other directors. I wish him well.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Savages (2012)

Savages has been described as a “return to form” from prolific director Oliver Stone, who has spent the last decade making straight biopics (W., Alexander) and safe feel-good movies (World Trade Center). The less said about Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps the better. You never thought one of the world’s edgiest filmmakers would follow such a square path. I can’t fault people for getting excited by Savages, hoping this drug-addled crime thriller can revive the gonzo sensibilities of the man. Well, Savages isn’t going to satisfy most people, especially those looking for a cohesive story, characters that grab your interest, and an ending that manages to stay true thematically with the rest of the movie. In short, Savages is a savage mess of a movie but not even an entertaining mess. It’s just a boring mess, and that is the film’s biggest sin.

Best friends Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are living the American dream. They began farming their own marijuana plants, using the best seeds form Afghanistan while Chon was on tour with the military. Together, the guys have produced a product high in THC that blows away the competition. They have flourished in California. Now a Mexican cartel, lead by Elena (Salma Hayek), wants in on their business, and they won’t take no for an answer. The cartel kidnaps the boys’ shared girlfriend, O (Blake Lively), and promises to hold her ransom for one year unless the boys agree to their terms. Chon and Ben decide to use their considerable resources to put the squeeze on Elena and her team of scumbags, all the while looking for a way to rescue their shared love of their life.

It’s a lurid movie all right. Plenty of sex, drugs, and violence, but man oh man is it all just empty diversions because the movie cannot survive its trio of unlikable, uninteresting, and painfully dull characters. O, Chon, and Ben have a dearth of charisma; light cannot escape their black hole of charisma. What sinks Savages is the realization that it’s just a shoddy movie filled with a lot of skuzzy characters but hardly anyone that merits genuine interest. We’ve got skuzzy good guys, skuzzy bad guys, but where are the personalities? Where are the quirks or the hooks to drive our interest? Just having Benicio del Toro (The Wolfman) act weird and mumbly is not enough to cover the shortcomings of his character. I’ve read reviews where critics cite del Toro as “hypnotic.” I have no idea what they’re talking about. He’s just your average skuzzy bad guy you’d find in any mediocre crime picture; he just so happens to be played by Benicio del Toro. The DEA Agent John Travolta (From Paris with Love) plays is your typical skuzzy desk weasel; he just so happens to be played by John Travolta. And that’s where the movie falters. We have all these characters on all sides of the law but we couldn’t give a damn for any of them. O comes across like an annoying, privileged, faux intellectual. Chon is a meathead. Ben is an amorphous do-gooder. I don’t care about their problems and I especially don’t care about them retrieving O so they can return to their vague polyamorous lifestyle. She wasn’t worth all the effort, nor where these men worth dying over. At any point in the film, I wanted these characters to hastily die so that I might, just out of chance, come across a more interesting figure. I received no salvation.

Our trio of bland characters is made flesh by a trio of bad performances. First off, people have got to be realizing that the kind of lived-in, edgy, and compelling performance Lively pulled off in 2010’s The Town is more the exception than the rule. Stop casting her in gritty parts unless they are directed by Ben Affleck. As O, our zombie narrator, she does little to make us sympathize with her dumb plight. Then there’s Kitsch (Battleship) who is just having a record year of high-profile flops. He’s done fine acting work before, but as Chon he’s just another ramped-up hothead with little else on his mind. Johnson (Kick-Ass) has the most “flavor” of the trio, acting granola-y and with philanthropic ambitions, but he’s still just another meathead just in different clothes. All three of these characters are idiots and the young actors don’t find any way to redeem them.

Actually, I found Salma Hayerk’s character the most interesting and would have enjoyed a movie based around her dilemma. Elena’s husband was the head of a drug cartel. He was assassinated, so the duties would have fallen to her son, but in order to protect him she assumed power. She has an estranged relationship with her youngest daughter, Magda (Sandra Echeverria), who is ashamed of her mother. This, Elena tells us, makes her produ; she is proud that her daughter is ashamed. Now just look at all those contradictions and complexities inherent with this character. She’s assumed a duty she did not want, something she knows is morally wrong, but she does so in the interest of protecting her children, even if it means pushing them away and having them despise her. And because she’s a woman, any wrong move and her competitors would be ready to pounce. Plus you add the day-to-day anxieties of a life of crime, the threat of betrayal or some upstart wanting to make a name for himself, and you have the makings of a great character drama. But do we get even a little of this? No. Instead, Elena’s just portrayed as another colorful villain. The supporting cast is peopled with what should be seen as “colorful” characters, but really these people are just as skuzzy and boring and personality-free as our loser ménage a trois.

I suppose there is a certain pleasure seeing Stone return to his blood-soaked, violent, gonzo self. The man has a certain enviable madness when it comes to composing a movie, a mad fever of images and sensations. From that standpoint, Savages is at least watchable even though you would rather see most of the characters get hit by a car. I just wish if Stone was going to go nuts that he committed and went all the way, bathing this movie in his lurid predilections as we tumbled down the rabbit hole of the underground world of organized crime. If you’re going to assault my senses with excess then at least have the gall to be excessive. How can you make a lurid movie but EVERY woman onscreen engaging in sex is clothed? That seems unrealistic even for a movie this stupid. Stone seems to have no problem dragging out uncomfortable rape scenes, so who knows what the further implications of that are. There are several grisly torture scenes and some random brutality, so you’ll at least be kept awake in spurts by people screaming.

Too much of this supposed crime picture is caught up in the oppressively irritating soap opera between O, Chon, and Ben (a little part of my soul dies every time I have to type “Chon” as a main character name). The script, based upon Dan Winslow’s novel, adapted by Shane Salerno, Stone and Winslow as well, is a mess but not even an enjoyable mess. Some of this dialogue is just laugh-out-loud bad. O opens the movie saying she has orgasms but Chon, you see, has… “wargasms.” Oh ye God, that one hurt. Every time we’re subjected to O’s protracted, monotone narration the movie loses whatever momentum it may have had.

She keeps saying, “Just because I’m telling this story, doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end.” Can you promise me that? Then there’s the very stupid ending, where the movie tries to have it both ways. It gets its bloody, operatic, tragic lovers ending…. and then in the next breath a happy ending as well, a ridiculously inappropriate happy ending. At least bloody and dead would have been satisfying. It’s a cop-out, a cheat, and a mystifying way to end a movie.

I wanted Savages to be a wild thrill ride. I never expected to be bored. Even when things go off the rails, the movie struggles to keep your interest. Blame the inane screenplay that eventually resorts to a cheap, cop-out of an ending, one that barely rises above the “it was all a dream” blunder. Blame the pathetic character and their lack of personality. Blame the strange feeling that Stone is holding back. Blame the bad performances. Blame the lack of fun. Blame the overwrought nature of the title the movie twists into knots trying to give some philosophical meaning. And finally, you might want to blame yourself for thinking that this movie would be any good in the first place. When movies are this mediocre, this lacking in intrigue, you almost wish they had tipped over completely into irredeemable garbage just so you’d at least have something worth watching. Savages is a strange crime thriller that manages to assemble all sorts of exploitation elements and then fumbles them all. If this is Stone in a “return to form,” I weep for what that entails.

Nate’s Grade: C

Ted (2012)

Seth MacFarlane has become an industry powerhouse. The man has three animated TV shows on air (Family Guy, American Dad, The Cleveland Show) and essentially carved an entire niche of modern comedy. His brand of irreverent, offensive, tangential humor has turned the man into a demigod among young audiences and helped him rake in millions. A journey to the movies seemed inevitable, and so comes Ted, which MacFarlane directed and co-wrote with two of his Family Guy scribes. The best assessment I can give is that if you enjoy MacFarlane’s brand of humor on TV, you’ll probably enjoy Ted. If not, then you’re in for a prolonged, obnoxious two hours.

One day when young John Bennett was a young boy, he wished his teddy bear would come alive so he’d always have a best friend. And as a narrator tells us, nothing is stronger than a young boy’s wish (curious gender is specified and then never touched upon for some kind of joke). The next morning Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) comes alive. Flash forward 30 years and Jon (Mark Wahlberg) works at a rental car company, has a stunning girlfriend in Lori (Mila Kunis), and regularly gets stoned with his best pal, Ted. The two guys are inseparable, which causes friction between John and Lori. After another notorious incident of Ted behaving badly, Lori insists that he move out. John has to start acting more responsible and treating Lori like she deserves, but Ted’s influence usually leads to trouble. Both Ted and John are in desperate need of growing up.

It was no surprise for me that Ted was exactly what I expected from Seth MacFarlane. It’s just a bigger, raunchier version of the style of humor he’s patented on television: tangential non-sequitors, scenes that go on far too long, obscure pop culture references, pointless shock material, and the basic premise that the jokes hinge around some creature merely doing things. Like Brian the Dog, or Roger the alien, Ted is a creature that shouldn’t necessarily exist, and thus so much humor is built around just seeing Ted exist. Is it supposed to be hilarious watching him drive? How about hit on women? Do bong hits? Far too often the only joke the movie seems to offer is that Ted is a teddy bear doing stuff. If you replaced him with, say, a normal human being, would any of those jokes work? Would it be funny watching a normal person drive, hit on women, and do bong hits? Maybe but probably not. It’s all one joke: look at something unnatural doing natural things. And that’s my issue with MacFarlane’s brand of humor. These jokes are not given proper attention, setup, and development. The film rarely subverts your expectations with how every joke will play out, and if you already know the jokes before the movie delivers them then what’s the point? The one joke I did laugh at, and a good guffaw at that, was Ted’s boss who kept responding to Ted’s screw-ups with good words and promotions. That was a surprise. But here’s the thing: once it’s established, you know what will happen the next time. So the second time it’s still funny but not as much. By the third time, his nonplussed reaction is completely expected and thus all traces of funny have been squeezed dry. In comedy, it’s all about surprise, and I find with MacFarlane that he rarely strays from his routine.

As far as jokes going on too long, let’s talk about a myriad of subplots that seemed to go on forever. There’s an entire storyline where an obsessed fan played by Giovanni Ribisi (Contraband) kidnaps Ted. This storyline makes up almost the entire third act and occurs after the reconciliation between John and Lori, so the movie already feels like it should be over. And then it keeps going. And it keeps going longer. And then there’s a car chase and a foot race through Fenway Park, which serves no purpose other than to probably fulfill a childhood wish of MacFarlane’s to film on said hallowed grounds. And it’s during this final act where the crass movie tries to become… sentimental? It just doesn’t work. You can’t have 100 minutes of rude, offensive, vulgar humor and then try and then try and go all gooey and soft and make people feel something akin to emotion. The reason that the Judd Apatow films can work with emotion is because from the get-go they make you care about the characters and their relatable conflicts. But there’s a difference between emotion and cheap sentiment, and Ted hasn’t earned genuine emotion. I didn’t like any of these characters. They all seemed like louts and jerks and dolts, none of them charming. Thus the end and its wish-upon-a-star conclusion are cheap sentiment and the kind of conclusion that you believe without a doubt that the characters in Ted would mercilessly mock.

Let me specify for the moment that there is a distinct difference between gross-out gags and gags that are just gross. There is also a difference between jokes that are shocking but funny and jokes that are just desperate to offend. In my experience with MacFarlane’s brand of humor, as well as McFarlane’s fratty devotees (if I was rushing a fraternity, I have no doubt Ted would be my favorite movie, bro), that difference is not understood. Watching an over-the-top racist Asian stereotype is merely offensive without proper context to draw out humor beyond the odious and obvious. Just punching a child in the face isn’t funny. Just having someone defecate on the floor isn’t funny, though the panicked removal of said feces was humorous in flashback. I may have chuckled and giggled from time to time with Ted, but most of the time I was just saddened by how desperate McFarlane and his writers were to shock rather than to entertain.

Thank God Wahlberg (The Fighter) was in this movie. While Ted is best left in small doses, the boorish best friend archetype, Wahlberg has been sharpening his comedic muscles (the only muscle in need of work it seems) and has become a terrific straight man. Anyone who remembered 2010’s The Other Guys knows that Wahlberg can be flat-out funny when given great madness to play off of. With Ted, Wahlberg’s commitment to the innate absurdity of the movie goes a long way. His breathless rendition of an exhaustive list of white trash girl names had me laughing harder than anything else in the movie, and I admit I was also impressed by Wahlberg’s speedy delivery. The character of John is a pretty standard role at this point in American comedy, one of arrested development. However, it seems to take so long, blown chance after blown chance, for John to finally find some sense of responsibility. Just like everyone else, he is at the mercy of Ted’s corrosive influence.

I probably wasn’t the ideal specimen for MacFarlane’s first foray into movies. I’ve never been more than a mild fan of his TV work and its hit-or-miss-but-mostly-miss brand of tangential humor, though I admit American Dad has grown on me (the only MacFarlane show where the jokes seem related to the story situations). MacFarlane unleashes the vulgar material he’s been holding back from TV, which makes for some laughs. The obviously stoned guys sitting in front of me thought the movie was hilarious, even during quiet moments where nothing was going on. I’m disappointed that a MacFarlane movie is pretty much exactly as I would have suspected, essentially a MacFarlane TV show blown up to a bigger screen. The jokes here are so limited, mostly deriving from Ted the teddy bear just doing things a teddy bear normally doesn’t. I wish the comedy were more developed, more nuanced, more concerned with doing something other than shock. The most shocking aspect of Ted is how utterly forgettable the whole enterprise is even with a magical talking teddy bear.

Nate’s Grade: C

Paul (2011)

This sci-fi comedy by the guys behind Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, though absent director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim came a callin’), is an irreverently fun flick that lovingly sends up just about everyone in its sights. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost play a pair of British sci-fi geeks road tripping through the American southwest when they come across Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), an alien on the run. Together they outrun various pursuers, from government agents to angry rednecks, and Paul transforms into a delightful road comedy with the different characters ping-ponging back and forth, narrowly missing but still in the hunt. It’s a cheeky even rollicking action comedy in the vein of a Midnight Run, though with way more stoner jokes. The plot nicely weaves these various elements and characters together, creating a satisfying escalation in suspense and comedy. The characters are pretty familiar and some of the gags are below the caliber of talent onscreen (really, more “people think we’re gay” jokes?), but the final product is unabashedly fun and it’s easy to feel Pegg and Frost’s enthusiasm. Paul is a light-hearted, funny, even tender sci-fi comedy that borrows from better movies but still manages to charm.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008)

I was a big fan of the first outing to White Castle, a crude stoner comedy that also happened to be clever in its outrageousness. The Harold and Kumar sequel returns the same writers but what the hell happened? The first film separated itself from its class of juvenile jokesters because it had charm and wit, but this mediocre movie just stumbles from one uninspired comedic setup to another. The boys get mistaken for terrorists and then the movie becomes a ramshackle road trip through America. The gags are lame and easily telegraphed. Regrettably, many jokes are reheated from the first film, like Kumar’s fantasies involving an anthropomorphic living bag of weed. The presence of the hysterically gifted Neil Patrick Harris gives the film a boost but even NPH cannot save these less-than-stellar shenanigans. The comic set pieces don’t add up together into something greater, and the only scene worth remembering is when the boys smoke weed with President Bush. You know you’re in bad shape when even the gratuitous nudity feels tacky and boring.

Nate’s Grade: C

Pineapple Express (2008)

There’s something to be said about a comedy that requires an audience to puff illegal substances in order to fully be entertained. Somewhere along the line the Judd Apatow comedy unit went down a wayward track with the stoner comedy, Pineapple Express, an amiable goof of a comedy at best. The premise is solid, two stoners (Seth Rogen and James Franco) witnessing a murder and on the run. Rogen and Franco have a great rapport with one another that translates to plenty of good vibes and humor (Danny McBride steals the show as a seemingly indestructible low-rent drug dealer). But the movie veers off into action territory with bloody violence that really harshes your mellow, man. Pineapple Express never really settles on a consistent tone, so when the movie fully transforms into a strained guns-a-blazin’ action caper, the comedy has totally vanished. The realistic violence is intended to get the laughs. When people get shot, it’s ugly, and when ear lobes get blown off it’s just plain gross. There’s no room for humor in the third act and the action is lazy and uninspired. If Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg (who scripted the much funnier Superbad) were aiming to create an action parody, then they didn’t push nearly hard enough. After the movie ended, I thought back to last year’s superior action parody, Hot Fuzz, which had a consistent tone and packed jokes as hard as punches. As a sober moviegoer who has never inhaled any such wacky tobaccy, Pineapple Express just kept eluding me. The movie is too slipshod, too misshapen, and it completely goes up in smoke by the end.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Grandma’s Boy (2006)

This Adam Sandler crony comedy came out within the first weeks of 2006. Many predicted it could very well remain one of the worst films of the year. Let me verify that belief. This is an incredibly lazy stoner sex comedy that can’t even get gratuitous nudity right. Its premise (video game tester moves in with three old women) never takes off, and much of the movie just feels like one giant drunken party. The story doesn’t even kick in until an hour in; you’re not Brokeback Mountain, Grandma’s Boy, you cannot afford to take your time and sit on your ass. This stuff just isn’t funny. You want to know how unfunny? A character thinks he’s in The Matrix. Hi-larious and oh so timely. The movie trots out a nerd’s dream girl (Linda Cardalini) for a ridiculous romantic subplot that will just continue to give people who play Xbox 20 hours a day false hope. Sandler needs to stop bankrolling his buddies’ tired pet projects (Do we really need more Rob Schneider movies?). This one is written by and stars Allen Covert and is directed by a guy whose only other credit to his name is, honestly, as an assistant to Covert on another movie. You can see how interested in quality Sandler and Covert are. This is rather insultingly unfunny for a raunchy sex comedy. It even plays it all too safe. There’s strong potential for a grand gross-out comedy involving horny old women, but this isn’t it. You mostly just feel sorry for the actors. This is a movie that doesn’t work on any level, except to keep Sandler’s buddies busy so they won’t crash on his couch.

Nate’s Grade: D

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