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Jason Bourne (2016)

Jason-Bourne-movie-posterAfter the indifferent reception of its 2012 spin-off, original super spy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and director Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips) are back and it feels like everyone is falling into familiar paces. The titular fourth film in the franchise (excluding Bourne Legacy) is easily the weakest (excluding Bourne Legacy) and the seams of the formula are starting to show. Once again an ally has intel to expose some sort of secret and illegal government conspiracy that ties into a revelation about Bourne’s past, and once again this ally is killed as the Act One break to spurn Bourne onward, and once again there’s a secondary assassin working for the morally murky government agency head, and once again there’s a signature car chase sequence, and once again there’s a final choice Bourne needs to make about what kind of person he wants to be given his new perspective on his old killin’ ways. The frantic Greengrass staple camerawork and editing can make just about anything bristle with some energy and suspense, but rarely was I fully feeling what was happening onscreen (except for the caveat of admiring how attractive Alicia Vikander’s face looks on the big screen). Short of the final car chase through Vegas with a SWAT truck barreling through traffic, the action sequences are pretty routine and unmemorable. The foot chases and fisticuffs, a hallmark of the franchise, feel slightly blasé in their development. The action isn’t bad but it feels more than a bit staid. The stakes aren’t as high and maybe that’s because it feels like there is little more to reveal about our hero’s hidden past. Is the next movie going to divulge the long lost secret that he never paid a parking ticket? Tommy Lee Jones makes an enjoyably crusty adversary. Vikander has just enough of an angle to provide more substance as a character than the typical agency analyst reciting exposition. The film ends with some promise of looking forward rather than back, and I hope that further adventures with Jason Bourne (excluding Bourne Legacy) stray a little more from the well-worn formula and provide better reasons for this spy to come out of his hiding.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (2015)

paul-blart-mall-cop-2-movie-posterThe first Paul Blart movie was fairly inoffensive. Much like its titular hero, it was buffoonish and loud and something to simply shrug and ignore the idiocy. It had a couple funny moments tweaking action movie conventions, less so with Kevin James’ numerous pratfalls. The world didn’t need a sequel beyond the demands of the first one making money. And much like the Die Hard sequels, the “spiritual forbearer” of Blart, our security guard finds himself miraculously being put in the same miraculous position again, this time in a different location. While Die Hard 2 is a fairly mundane follow-up, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is a true test of everything we hold sacred. Midway into the movie, I thought my review was just going to be my unintelligible suicide note.

Blart (James) is in Las Vegas for an annual security convention. He’s brought along his teen daughter Maya (Rami Rodriguez) for some valuable father-daughter time, especially in light of Blart losing his wife and mother. It’s at this convention where Blart runs across a team of art thieves lead by Vincent (Neal McDonough). It’s up to the most unlikely mall security cop to save the day again, Vegas-style. Oh, and when traveling in Vegas, make sure to stay at the luxurious Wynn Casino and Hotel. Can I get a check too for the self-promotion like this movie?

Kevin James laughs at your pain.

Kevin James laughs at your pain.

Somewhere along the way, James and co-writer Nick Bakay decided the lovable lug needed to be a modern-day Pagliacci and be the crying clown America deserves. The opening act feels like notorious cinematic sadist Lars von Trier designed it. In the opening minutes, Blart’s wife (Jayma Mayes) divorces him not even a full week into marriage. She couldn’t stop vomiting from the thought of being married to him (this literally happens). His mother is run over and killed by a milk truck. His daughter has been accepted into UCLA but fears telling her father this joyous news because she doesn’t want to push him over the edge. This and he’s still emasculated and looked down upon by an assortment of industry peers at the Vegas convention. All of this culminates in Blart becoming a paranoid, overbearing bully who loses the sense of likeability that comes naturally to James even in dreck. Take a moment where Blart intervenes with his drunken friend. The guy has been obnoxiously making sexual advances on a woman (played by Adam Sandler’s wife) who just wants her privacy respected, and Blart saves the day by… convincing the woman that she should be flattered by the drunk’s advances. Yeah. He rejects his daughter’s academic accomplishment and demands she attend a lesser school closer to home for his own selfish benefit. He’s pushing her away. Then there’s the weird ongoing joke about his arrogant assumption that an attractive hotel employee is hitting on him; he’s dismissive of her throughout and, here’s the weird part, it ends up working. She falls for him (“I can’t say no to you”). That’s right folks, Paul Blart successfully “negged” himself a date. He’s not a loveable loser any more. He’s just an angry, bullying, self-pitying loser.

There won’t be a joke (I’ll be charitable and refer to them as “jokes”) that you won’t see coming a mile away and still roll your eyes when they arrive. When the movie has an exotic bird walk out, you know it’s only a matter of seconds before it comically engages in a fight with Blart. When he steps back onto the familiar confines of a Segway, you know it’s only a matter of seconds before he does something stupid. The crux of the humor of this movie is about 90 minutes of a fat guy falling down, and it still takes 47 minutes for the plot to get in gear. Let me repeat that for those in the cheap seats: a movie that is built upon the frail premise of being a Die Hard parody takes 47 unholy minutes to actually have its plot kick into gear. I watched Blart fight a stupid bird before the movie had the villain’s scheme play out. Naturally, the film would have been bereft without that man-on-bird action (sorry to disappoint those who came here vis-à-vis a salacious SEO keyword search). Likewise we needed 28 shots of James falling over. Anything less would have been unacceptable to the viewing public. If you’re going to be a dumb comedy just be a dumb comedy and don’t waste my time. 500x281

And oh what a dumb comedy it is. The first Blart film wasn’t going to be confused with Tom Stoppard but it at least had some action conventions it could tweak. This go-round can’t even manage that, and so we’re inundated with tired slapstick and comedy that rarely rises above the most obvious joke at every opportunity. Blart gets ready to attack an intruder and, wouldn’t you know it, he ends up punching an old lady. Hilarious. Even funnier is that the injured hospitality worker apologizes to her attacker. There’s also a thinly disguised gay panic joke where Blart freaks out when a guy eats a brown banana. Who cares about how brown a banana is? At one point Blart hides inside a suitcase positioned at the top of the stairs. Why? Well so that the suitcase can fall down those stairs and hit the bad guy in the head. Don’t you get it? He’s fat. There are few comic setups or developments, no payoffs. Scenarios that should be comic, like Blart stumbling on stage of a Vegas dance show, are practically played straight, with the visual of Blart cavorting his large torso as the only joke itself. In case you forgot, he’s fat.

I should not have been expecting much from Paul Blart 2 simply by the choice of jokes highlighted in the trailer. If you wanted a cursory reminder, it included Blart fighting a bird, Blart punching an old lady, Blart running into a plate glass window, and Blart getting kicked by a horse in what should be a spine-obliterating accident. Let’s take this last gag and really explore how it’s indicative of Paul Blart 2. The foundation is a dumb act of slapstick, but that’s not good enough and so it’s exaggerated to even dumber magnitude. With the help of self-loathing CGI artists (they can’t all be Jurassic World), Blart ricochets across a street and violently bounces against a car door. It’s not enough that a horse kicks this guy; he has to get kicked by a super horse because it just wasn’t funny enough. That sums up the comic ethic of Paul Blart 2: when stupid isn’t enough, amp it further, and then be proud about what you’ve done.

Nate’s Grade: D

Best Night Ever (2014)

110786_galThere are no more reviled names in the world of comedy than the duo of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Together, these writer/directors have unleashed such loathsome films as Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, and their most recent spoof, The Starving Games. Each film was further evidence that Friedberg and Seltzer had no grasp on the basic tenets of comedy. But, free of the shackles of a spoof formula, what could these two accomplish? That’s a question no one on the planet was seriously pondering but here comes Best Night Ever, a found footage comedy where four thirty-something female friends (Desiree Hall, Samantha Colburn, Eddie Ritchard, Crista Flanagan) travel to Las Vegas and get into oh so scandalous trouble. How original, right?

Being Friedberg and Setlzer’s first straight comedy, it’s fascinating how it fails in a completely different yet similar manner than their normal spoof monstrosities. The problem, among others, with their spoofs is that they are not structured for comedy but merely lame pop-culture references, with the reference standing in the place of what should be a joke. It’s a notable absence of comedy. With their first original work, Friedberg and Seltzer lose the references but forget to replace them with, you know, comedy. Take for instance a scenario where our four heroines hide in a dumpster. The police are outside and they don’t want to be caught. All right, this setup could afford some nice squeamish comedy. Instead, we hold onto the same painfully long night vision shot (4 minutes and 45 seconds – thanks Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at AV Club) with the ladies breathing heavily. It takes several minutes until this situation changes, when the girls start singing “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes as a patented means of soothing a panicked friend, which itself isn’t any funnier. Let’s unpack this scene. They’re in an uncomfortable place and forced to be quiet lest they alert the police. Why set this up and do nothing with it? And the supposed payoff for the scene is more a jump scare than a joke, and it’s not worth the wait. There’s also a lengthy dialogue-free montage where the girls do a scavenger hunt of activities around Vegas, most of which are fairly innocuous for a sex comedy (rub a bald man’s head?). There’s no wilder escalation. When the girls put a blacklight to their seedy motel room, it goes as expected. Oh no, semen stains are everywhere, but you keep waiting for a capper. It’s got to be more than this, something different, something a little more bizarre, like perhaps someone spelling out their name in semen. Nope. And that’s Best Night Ever in a nutshell (no pun intended): a tediously long wait without payoff or jokes.

MCDBENI EC004Best Night Ever wants to pretend it’s intended for a female audience but the writing makes it seems like Friedberg and Setlzer don’t know women. It’s a girls’ night out, and from a male perspective, which means a lot of shouting, “woo,” dancing, drinking, and all sorts of tame activities. None of these people feel like human beings, let alone friends that we should care about. Being Friedberg and Seltzer’s first R-rated comedy, the guys should be embracing the tasteless possibilities, getting their ladies into crazy scenarios that spiral out of control. Instead, the whole sad affair has such a timid feel, as if Friedberg and Seltzer decided a largely female audience would be put off by too much crass content. There’s a sequence where the ladies take pills they found in am ambulance. All right, you’re thinking, this should lead somewhere. Oh how wrong you’d always be expecting something from these two filmmakers. We’re treated to an extended sequence of the girls just dancing for several minutes, in slow-mo no less, mouthing, “Best night ever.” That’s it. Why does the movie repeatedly pull its punches when it comes to the bridesmaids behaving badly? I think it’s the misplaced idea of not wanting to rankle its target audience, that women have a lower quotient for bad taste.

Let’s explore what happens in the lone sequences where Friedberg and Seltzer decide to indulge their R-rated crassness. The ladies kidnap the valet driver who they believe mugged them. Disguised in ski masks that can’t help but trigger associations with Spring Breakers, they break into his home, strap him to his bed, and then one of the ladies eventually urinates on his face. And if that wasn’t enough, she craps on him as well accidentally. Of all the directions this setup could have gone, a woman pooping on a man’s face just seems lame, having to settle for cheap shock value over jokes. The end gives us our first glimpse of nudity, as the ladies stumble into the wrong hotel room on an amorous interracial couple. Incensed, the naked couple couple chases after them. The chief threat is an overweight black woman and, apparently, her overweight nude body is meant to be the outlandish joke. Oh look, a fat woman chasing after our characters! And so, her nudity is allowed because it’s meant to be comical (visions of Borat dancing in my head). Like other sequences, this part is drawn out and exhausts whatever brittle comic potential it may have had. Then there’s the lingering thought that the only minority characters in the movie are presented in states of undress, their nudity meant to serve as discomfort.

I understand the sexy marketing hook of making a found footage movie, but does the entire film have to be stuck in this limited narrative constraint? Can a movie not just incorporate found footage elements but be free to break away on its own, like The Purge? Alas, Friedberg and Seltzer embark on found footage and can’t even adequately maintain that guise, often failing to produce reasons for why their characters are still filming. First off, why would anyone just film themselves introducing who they are on a bachelorette voyage when, presumably, the only people watching it will be close friends? Then there’s the pesky habit where people keep holding the camera out, framing all four ladies so carefully. Then there’s the fact that the footage is seen rewinding and fast-forwarding, presenting sequences out of sequence, some with intertitles added for dates because having a date stamp for a recording wouldn’t be good enough. So, the age old question, who did all this? Who added music to the sequences? Then there’s the fact that later on the camera cuts to reaction shots and different angles in single scenes, completely destroying the illusion of being found footage. Why blur nudity in an R-rated movie in general, but even more so, if this is found footage, what hypocritical hypothetical editor is blurring certain nudity and letting other nudity pass? Nothing of substance or humor is added to this film by forcing the prism of found footage. Instead it only makes the characters dumber and less realistic than the one-note placeholders they already are.

still-of-crista-flanagan-in-best-night-ever-2014-large-pictureLet’s talk about those characters. Comedies have a long history of putting together archetypes; take for instance The Hangover, a surefire inspiration for Friedberg and Seltzer. We’ve got the smarmy asshole, the uptight straight guy, and the goofy nutball, all classic comic archetypes that can bounce off one another. With Best Night Ever we have… the… mother… the slutty one… the… actually it doesn’t matter because the characters are so poorly written that they are indistinguishable. Not one of them has a personality or anything memorable to them. They’re all one type: bland. The only way I was keeping track of who’s who was by hair color, and even that is something of a challenge at times (two redheads?). Friedberg and Seltzer hastily throw in some “character details” for some, like one one just had her husband leave her for a man and another is a mother and has a breast pump. Okay, 1): why pump milk on a Vegas trip? Is that going to keep on the multi-hour car ride home? And 2): you’d expect with a detail like that there would be a later payoff…. Nope. Like most things in the movie, the details are just hastily thrown into the mix and readily discounted.

I was morbidly curious what Friedberg and Seltzer would set their sights on when not cannibalizing pop-culture in their spoof movies, and now I know. Best Night Ever is just as inept a comedy as their previous spoof atrocities. It irritates me even more that Friedberg and Seltzer could have done any comedy they want, and this is what they delivered, a tacky and too often timid sex comedy that has far too many drawn out sequences in place of actual humor. I don’t think found footage works in the context of comedies. It provides a sense of realism, and the long takes naturally build tension, but these aspects benefit the horror genre, not so much comedy. With comedy you still need to develop setups, complicate them, provide payoffs, and make sure to provide detours from the expected. There is nothing truly unexpected from this girls’ night out, and the cheap jokes rarely build or alter, so the pained setup at the beginning of the scene remains the same by the end. The simple premise of a bachelorette party gone wrong is ripe with potential, a potential that will never see any flicker of life under the guise of Friedberg and Seltzer. I never thought I’d write this but these two can just go back to their spoofs. Of course my first request would be never to make another movie again.

Nate’s Grade: D-

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

Go (1999)

The sophomore outing of director Doug Liman, the man who put the swinger in Swingers baby, is far from any slump – no it’s more like an achievement. Liman is a man that knows what he wants and an excellent visual artist. Go is a spinning tour-de-force joyride of energetic fun. The movie is down right infectious. It stays in your system for many days, no weeks, after viewing. Consult your physician for proper treatment.

Born in the shadow of Pulp Fiction with the disjointed narrative structure, interlocking plots, retelling of events through different perspectives, and out-of-place editing, Go is the first movie to deserve having the comparisons to Tarantino’s masterpiece of blood and violence. It’s like a child of Fiction, with teens as the main stars and doing some awfully idiotic things mainly because… they’re teenagers. The story of Go is bursting to the seams with clever and embraceable characters, witty and hilarious dialogue, and enough plot twists to keep any viewer frothing at the mouth for more. Again, consult your physician.

The movie reminds me in a way as a American Graffitti or Fast Times at Ridgemont High for the fresh stable load of young talent displayed. Everyone fits nicely and performs excellently, like Timothy Olyphant’s devilishly charming and dangerous turn as a drug dealer, and Taye Diggs who helped get Stella’s groove back and is now the too cool for words friend of a grocery clerk on their trip to Vegas which turns into a comedy of errors. But the standout amongst all the talent is that little delectable Canadian bundle of joy known as Sarah Polley. Playing one of the chief protagonists, she is fascinating and compelling. She takes the role and shines the brightest in a movie filled with equally bright stars. I look forward to seeing what she does in the future.

Set against the L.A. rave scene Go tells the story circling around a 24-hour period of tantric sex, drug deals, a police sting, a lap dance, gay soap stars, and good ole’ chew-able aspirin. The movie is driven by an awesome soundtrack of techno and rock that seems to act like the narrator of our little tale. Go is brisk, breathless, rigorously hip and smart. Finally an INTELLIGENT teen movie. Too bad not too many teens went to see it at the theaters judging from box office scores. I guess they all wanted to see Ryan Phillipe’s ass one more time in Cruel Intentions. But Go is a fascinating trip you’ll want to take over and over and wish the sun would never come back up. Do not pass Go.

Nate’s Grade: A

This movie also revisited and analyzed in the article, “1999: The Greatest Year in Film? A Review Re-View.”

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