A body swap movie set in a slasher universe, Freaky is a fun and gory romp that still feels like it could have been even more entertaining with the possibility of its premise. A masked serial killer (Vince Vaughn) stabs a teenage girl (Kathryn Newton) with a magic Mayan knife and they swap places and must learn to cope in their new bodies and roles. The teen-in-adult body is wonderfully played by Vaughn, who seems to be really enjoying himself with a silly role that pushes him outside his smooth-talking leading man roles. He might be playing up the girlishness and higher-pitched voice but his energy level is high and provides plenty of entertainment with the absurdity. There are a few inspired moments developed from the crazy premise, like when Vaughn has a heart-to-heart with his/her mother at work, able to offer insight into the daughter she feels she is failing, and the mother becomes romantically intrigued by this mysterious man. There is a first kiss sequence in the backseat of a car that is so awkward but owns its outrageous quality. I wish the movie from co-writer/director Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day) made better use of its fruitful premise. There are so many more bizarre scenarios that could be gleaned here, especially if the masked serial killer had more of a personality. Clearly modeled after the silent stalkers like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, this makes the film feel too one-sided with ideas. Sure the teenage girl is now to be feared, dresses sharper, and kills her high school annoyances, but it doesn’t make for much of a creative cat-and-mouse game when it comes to outsmarting the original owner of this new body. I will also champion the gory kill scenes as above average in their conception and execution. It’s really over-the-top and memorable and I wish there had been even more wild splatter. Freaky is a decidedly fun movie from the Blumhouse assembly line but I can’t help wishing it was a little bit funnier, a little bit weirder, and little bit more imaginative. The parts were there to make this hilarious and brilliantly creative, and settling for chuckles and disposable entertainment feels like a nagging compromise.
Nate’s Grade: B
Welcome to the not too distant future where the miracle of science (i.e. red bodysuits and washcloths over people’s faces) allow you to transport your mind into that of another individual. So what happens when a serial killer snags a catch only to be dropped into a coma with no way of discovering where his victim is before time runs out? Well we send Jennifer Lopez into his head — duh! The Latina songstress (and as my girlfriend would say, “Thankfully song-less.”) transports herself to learn the secrets of Mr. Madman before his next victim becomes just a number on a sheet. Sound contrived, like the movie was in production before they had a workable script? You’re not alone. One-named director Tarsem is from the land of music videos but for the life of me I can’t think of one he’s done.
Perhaps the excruciatingly long Nine Inch Nails promo would be less frustrating if the outpourings of creepy imagery meant something. Despite the desire to explain the inside cerebrum of a crazy man, 90% of the imagery is there for the simple sake that it looks cool. Lopez plays Alice to a lumbering wonderland of dark images and a mind-numbingly clattering musical score. Would someone please explain to me why a CGI vine grew on screen for five minutes then went away?
Lopez speaks in whispers, Vaughn speaks like he’s on Ritalin, and the movie speaks that if you had abuse as a kid it’s okay to trap women in self-filling aquarium cubes and bleach them into albino Barbies. Won’t see that in your typical after school special.
The Cell may present some things you’ve never seen before, like a jack-in-the-box theme to twirling intestines, but too often it presents things you have seen much too often in film — boredom.
Nate’s Grade: D
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I really thought The Cell might be better twenty years later but no. I was fairly critical back in 2000, referring to it as one of the worst movies of that year, and twenty years later it put me to sleep. Never a great sign for your entertainment. I had to re-watch the final act of this movie twice, and then I reviewed certain scenes a few more times just for good measure to make sure I wasn’t missing anything essential. The Cell doesn’t really play like a movie. It plays more like the film adaptation of a video game. The premise is promising, a psychologist (Jennifer Lopez) that has to venture into the twisted mind of a serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio) in order to extract key info before time runs out finding his latest victim. We got something there. However, the actual movie becomes little more than an enterprise for director Tarsem Singh (Immortals) to get drunk on his lavish visual self-indulgences. As my 18-year-old self observed, it does feel like a 90-minute Nine Inch Nails music video.
I suppose The Cell could have been a harbinger of a sub-genre of movies that has multiplied in indie horror, namely the atmospheric movie where the atmosphere is the entire point. Forget story, forget characters, forget setups and payoffs, forget basic emotional investment; the film is simply constructed to deliver strange and memorable imagery and an overwhelming feeling of discomfort and/or transcendence. This isn’t a new sub-genre. David Lynch has been dabbling in this realm for decades, and Terrence Malick fully converted around the time of The Cell’s theatrical release (granted his atmospheric dawdles are considered more high-art). Dear reader, I’ll fully admit my own filmmaking tastes and biases and confess this sub-genre rarely does much for me. That’s because, in my personal experience, the atmosphere gets repetitious and predictable and without greater investment I just grow bored. I completely acknowledge that there is an audience that feels the opposite, that celebrates the immersive quality of giving one’s self into the visual decadence of a filmmaker creating a vivid dream to tempt and confuse your senses. I get it, but it’s not for me, and so I found The Cell to be overall empty and tedious.
Credit where it’s rightfully due, the visuals on display are often striking and luscious, as are the amazing costumes that were shockingly not nominated for the Academy Award that year (The Cell did receive a nomination for Best Make-Up). The sequences are gorgeously composed starting with the opening of Lopez riding a black horse through the desert and then scaling the dunes, each shot so artfully composed that it could be mass produced as a postcard. Tarsem is a gifted visual artist and has been from his early days as an in-demand music video director in the 1990s (R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” En Vogue’s “Hold On”). The mind of a serial killer allows the man to open up the bizarre and grotesque imagery we would expect from that slippery setting. There’s one scene where a series of glass partitions slice a horse into slimmer portions and then spread out the still-breathing remains. There are definite nods to classical baroque painting, like Caravaggio. The various incarnations of our serial killer’s demons gave me a reason to keep watching. There’s demon horn version, giant purple curtain caped version, Alice in Wonderland version, and a final incarnation that resembles a Star Trek alien crossed with Michael Keaton’s Birdman. There is a draw to exploring a brain built upon trauma and abuse and mental illness. It’s like the horror version of Inception. However, while commendable from a production and visceral standpoint, the plot diversions have the feel of visiting the most messed up museum, taking in display cases and then moving onto the next. There’s little here beyond the superficial and the imagery, while artful, is too disposable and ephemeral.
I’m slightly surprised Tarsem hasn’t had a bigger career in feature films. He delivers pretty much what you would ask a visually decadent director to do with this material. It took him many years to get his next film up and running, 2006’s The Fall, and from there it’s been a series of studio-friendly jobs, each further neutering his distinct visual style (watch 2015’s Self/less and tell me it’s the same director of The Cell). He seemed like the kind of artist who might follow Michel Gondry’s (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) path but it didn’t seem to play out that way.
Music videos in the 1990s became the fertile training ground for Hollywood to snatch up-and-coming talent for their projects, but looking back, very few of those directors had lasting feature film careers. Not everyone is going to be a David Fincher or a Spike Jonze or even a Francis Lawrence. Many of the most influential and prominent names, like Hype Williams (Belly), Samuel Bayer (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2009), Joseph Kahn (Torque), Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo), Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways), Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), Jonus Akerlund (Spun), and Dave Meyers (The Hitcher 2007) only got one or two movies to prove themselves as long-form filmmakers. You have your directors that were attached to action movies, like McG, Marc Webb, Marcus Nispel, Mark Pellington, and most successfully, Michael Bay (strange that they all start with “M”). I’m sure my general ignorance of contemporary music videos (beyond Billie Eilish it would seem) has kept me from citing more names that made the big leap. I guess this paragraph was just examining that most prominent music video directors don’t seem to last in the studio system unless they can prove themselves to be reliable purveyors of mainstream action.
The only real actor worth noting here is D’Onofrio (Men in Black). He gets to be gleefully weird, his favorite kind of acting. He looks like he’s having fun scaring Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers) and inhabiting the different demons of a very disturbed soul. Lopez is perfectly fine but almost entirely reactionary here, like she’s a video game avatar going from one dark corner to another as she clears stage after stage. Her biggest acting was simply putting on the weighty costumes. Vince Vaughn (Wedding Crashers) is completely wasted as a determined F.B.I. agent desperate to find the last victim before she drowns in one of those movie-world elaborate death traps. All of the scenes outside the killer’s psyche are a general waste and serve as monotonous running-time padding. That also includes a deleted scene, restored for the BluRay release, where the killer suspends himself from metallic piercings over a corpse and masturbates onto her body while watching another woman drown in his elaborate death trap. It’s so absurdly try-hard that it’s stunning. This scene offers no further insights into the character, only another gratuitous excuse to be transparently “edgy.”
Looking back at my original review at age 18, I’m struck by how much I agree with my younger self (good job, me). I didn’t have much to say beyond my general dissatisfaction with the boring narrative and the pretty yet vacant visuals. I would classify this review as one of my glibber entries, something I’ve noticed with bad movies and generally being a smart allecky teenager. I do think that perhaps I should raise my grade only slightly due to the level of visual flair. It’s certainly not a fun movie, or an interesting one, or even a good one, but The Cell is first-rate fetish wallpaper.
Re-View Grade: C-
S. Craig Zahler is the real deal when it comes to budding genre auteurs. He’s been writing in Hollywood for some time and after numerous un-produced scripts he finally decided to take matters into his own hands. In 2015, he wrote and directed the terrific and terrifically violent western Bone Tomahawk, and then in 2017 he tried his hand at another genre movie, the brutal prison drama, Brawl in Cell Block 99. Now Zahler has hopped to another genre, the more familiar cops-and-robbers crime thriller territory, Dragged Across Concrete. I’ll watch anything that Zahler decides is worthy of his precious time, and I was unprepared for how engaging, exciting, and uncomfortable the movie made me. It’s still early but I already feel confident this is destined as one of my favorite films of 2019.
One bank robbery. Many different sides fighting for the score. Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) is an ex-con fresh for prison and attached to a crew thanks to a childhood friend, Biscuit (Michael Jai White). Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) is a police detective who has been in the same position for nearly 30 years. His wife has MS and his daughter is being assaulted in their urban neighborhood. His partner, Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), is struggling to work up the nerve to propose to his girlfriend and he sees his partner slipping. Both of them are on suspension after a video of them beating a handcuffed suspect appears online. Then there are the mysterious, masked men (labeled as Grey Gloves and Black Gloves) working alongside Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann) who hire Henry John and Biscuit to be their getaway drivers. This culminates with a bank robbery that places every character in greater jeopardy as things spin out of control.
What separates Zahler from the pack is simply the magnificent manner he can write scenes, building and building, unlocked intriguing character details, building to startling conclusions or everyday relatability given a new, brash context. It’s a screenwriting edict that every scene should in essence be its own story, having a beginning, middle, and end, a drive, and if possible a reversal to something unexpected, shedding further examination onto a problem, person, or setting. I was greatly enjoying just watching the various characters talk in their understated, hard-boiled, often funny conversations, which don’t feel too self-consciously stylized. It’s just damn good writing. Even when they’re doing bad things, or mistakes that cost them greatly, Zahler has his characters respond like people and not hip, soulless movie cartoons. There’s a reason Concrete is two and a half hours long and that’s because Zahler really lets his scenes breathe at their own pace, which can be too languid if it wasn’t for how exquisitely written they are, particularly with character details. Each scene sheds a startling non-judgmental spotlight on a different character, some criminal, some corrupt, most struggling to keep their heads above water and provide for family, and you feel the narrative expanding, growing, transforming, and providing the needed space to make these people feel real.
Each one of these scenes could be a marvelous short film upon themselves, and sometimes it feels that way with the skipping perspectives. What happens to Jennifer Carpenter’s character, a woman beset with anxiety about returning to work after maternity leave, is its own wonderful movie that provides a glimpse into a life and in only five minutes’ time. Her reluctance to go back to work, her need to be with her child, the simple, heartfelt plea with a child’s sock. It all works in impressive tandem to make this person feel authentic. The same with an exchange between two lifelong friends about a birthday cake and naming dinosaurs, reaching back to ease the current tension. It’s insight rarely afforded to characters in a standard heist movie. The actors are all given these artistic arias to work with, and the extra attention to detail brings a depth of dimension that makes them feel fully realized. Zahler has captured recognizable, complicated human beings and placed them in a pulpy genre movie. This is the sort of A-level elevation of B-movie material that is usually the purview of Quentin Tarantino.
Because of my general awe with the characterization, Zahler had the added benefit of making the rising dread feel powerfully unnerving. It’s major a slow burn of a movie, setting up the various players that will be directly or indirectly involved with the robbery, and that robbery doesn’t even hit until well after an hour into the film. Because of that patience, or self-indulgence some will decry, the movie fleshes out all the participants and their various motivations so that the audience feels degrees of sympathy for many people on different sides of the equation. This leads to amazing tension for the last hour. I was tying myself in knots waiting for awful things to happen to characters I found compelling because, frankly, awful things happen easily in Zahler’s movie universe. There is a stash of guns in the glove compartment of a getaway van. The first sequence involves the growing tension of characters placing themselves in a vulnerable position by giving up their weapons. Then, as the scene transforms anew, the guns in that compartment become a reminder of an ironic advantage that only one character knows about, and we wait for their retrieval to escalate the danger of the new scenario. That’s fabulous writing with organic developments. There are several characters at cross-purposes with little reason to trust one another, and so we wait for that looming explosion of violence fed by mistrust and greed. Zahler understands this and that’s why many of the scenes in the last hour follow the writing style, slow burns that hang onto the unease and breathing space. There are several long takes aided by long shots that amplify the gnawing tension, as your eyes scan the screen waiting for the boom.
I’ve read more than a few negative reviews for Dragged Across Concrete and I don’t understand their central criticism, namely that Zahler’s movie is “problematic” because of a supposed conservative, bigoted point of view. I think these critics are conflating a featured viewpoint with an endorsement of that viewpoint. Take for instance the brouhaha that erupted over a 2015 episode of the Hulu comedy series Difficult People where a narcissistic, caustic character makes an inappropriate joke featuring super scion Blue Ivy and vilified R. Kelly. In the context of the show, the character is berated for her off-color joke and suffers social consequences. When the episode aired, people went after the show and producer Amy Poehler and entirely missed the point. The character was not put in a positive light for making this joke. She was shamed. Clearly the show did not endorse her behavior but others could not see through their own misplaced outrage. With Dragged Across Concrete, we are presented with middle-aged police officers with a chip on their shoulder who feel justified in engaging in brutality against a suspect of color. That’s not a good thing. Zahler’s film does not endorse their actions or worldview but allows them space to exist, filling in their experiences, so we have a greater understanding of how their perspectives have been honed and hardened over time. It’s the same empathetic lens given to other people, like the opening where Henry comes home and discovers his mother has been forced to turn to prostitution to fend for herself and Henry’s disabled younger brother. I don’t think Zahler endorses the abusive cops any more than the ruthless masked killers.
I’m keeping things light in this review for the reason that I want you, dear reader, to be surprised by the many twists and turns of Dragged Across Concrete. As the film builds in intensity, the body count rises and the conclusion feels inevitable because of the superb writing that laid a tight foundation to build upon. Even in death, the characters stay true to whom they are, which can often be very not nice people. The acting is great from every player. This movie grabbed me from the beginning and refused to let go and I was genuinely spellbound from Zahler’s storytelling prowess and ability to weave a net of complex, flawed, humane, and fascinating characters into a tragic scenario of violence that left me anxious and exhilarated. When people complain that Hollywood isn’t making thinking-person films for adults, please invite them to the burgeoning oeuvre of Zahler, who is charting a path for himself on his own terms thanks to his instincts and tremendous writing voice. Dragged Across Concrete is a ferocious punch to the gut in the best way possible.
Nate’s Grade: A
Mel Gibson needs to direct more movies. End of statement. It’s been a decade since Gibson last helmed a movie, 2006’s visceral art film for jocks, Apocalypto, and he’s been in “movie jail” ever since a string of controversial drunken statements. His new movie is a completely earnest, classical example of storytelling that you just as easily could see faces of old appear (say John Wayne in place of curmudgeonly Vince Vaughn), and Hacksaw Ridge is a stirring war movie and a stirring character study. Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who wanted to go to war but refused to touch a gun. The first half of the movie is the U.S. Army trying to make sense of this inherent conflict, looking for ways to intimidate him, make him compromise, or kick him out of service. Yet, he endures, and it’s in the second half that Doss single-handedly saves 75 wounded men as a medic left alone on a deserted battlefield in the Pacific. Garfield (Amazing Spider-Man) is a solid lead performance, though his cornpone West Virginia accent irritated me… until the real Desmond Doss is showcased in archival footage and he sounds exactly alike. The supporting characters are rich and have more depth than I was expecting, including Hugo Weaving as Doss’ father, a drunken shell from his WWI survivor’s guilt. There’s much more complexity to what otherwise could be a hateful drunk and one-note character foil. The one miss I felt was the courtship between Doss and his future wife (Teresa Palmer). It felt like an outdated perspective where a man’s insistence overrode a woman’s agency and he was rewarded for it. Admittedly, that’s a modern perspective applied to a generational relationship from long ago. The movie is naturally graphic but the bloody violence is stylized in a way that communicates the ugliness and chaos of war. The action develops and is grisly and engaging without losing sense of the characters and without falling into redundancy. When Doss is rescuing survivors in the final act, the movie finds new challenges that he has to overcome to keep things interesting and raise the stakes. Gibson’s images can be frightfully beautiful; his command of visual storytelling and its evocative power is too good for only one movie a decade. It may be impossible to make an anti-war movie without in some way glamorizing war, so even though Hacksaw Ridge celebrates the heroism of one man’s anti-violence values it finds a mainstream sense of entertainment in the carnage. It’s like a tentpole Oscar movie and I hope I don’t have to wait until 2026 for the next Gibson-directed vehicle.
Nate’s Grade: B+
If scientists could take time away from, you know, curing diseases, and craft the perfect blend of “meh” in a lab, it would be The Watch. It’s not particularly offensive or terrible but it’s certainly not good. The humor of boys misbehaving and talking tough doesn’t ever seem to get further than the initial concept. The movie ends up becoming a more crass version of Ghostbusters, with a special fascination for the male member. This is a very penis-obsessive movie. Usually guy-centric sex raunchy comedies will definitely feature strong discussion/comedy revolving around male genitalia, but this is one of the few movies where complete storylines hinge upon penises (weird imagery, I’ll admit). Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill are more annoying than anything else. Poor Rosemarie DeWitt as the underwritten wife role in what is essentially a boys-behaving-badly movie (also her second 2012 movie where she’s trying to get pregnant). When the movie goes full-force into action mode, it loses just about any semblance of comedy. I laughed about three times, and that was thanks to Richard Ayoade (TV’s The IT Crowd) and, believe it or not, Will Forte (MacGruber). Sitting through 105 minutes with little laughs, irritating characters, and poorly conceived action in place of genuine comedic payoffs, well it’s not exactly a recipe for a successful summer comedy. And yet, with all its obvious faults, I couldn’t hate the movie as others have. It’s certainly not likeable but it does go about its business with a certain swagger, albeit misguided. Cocky loudmouths failing at entertainment are still marginally better than artists who don’t even try. It sounds like I’m reaching, and I am, but The Watch, certainly a bad comedy, may eventually be worth a watch when, you know, it’s on TV and you can half-heartedly pay attention to it while you go about your day.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Vince Vaughn is a likable scamp. He’s generally played the same quick-witted, charming, motor-mouth lout in every movie since 2005’s smash, Wedding Crashers. He’s been working fairly nonstop since then and has, by all accounts, become something of a box office draw, which seems bizarre if you think about it long enough. So the best thing I can say about Vaughn’s new comedy Couples Retreat is, hey, at least he’s making sure his pals can pay the bills.
I think it was that famed poet Pat Benatar who said love is a battlefield. She never went through marriage counseling (note: maybe she did, I don’t care to actually research this). The movie centers around four dysfunctional couples that take a vocational to a tropical island resort. Dave (Vaughn) has trouble prioritizing his wife, Ronnie (Malin Akerman). Joey (Jon Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis) have been together ever since she got pregnant in high school. They’re at each other’s throats and secretly looking to cheat on each other. Jason (Jason Bateman) and his way younger wife, Cynthia (Kristen Bell), are unable to conceive a baby. They’re very organized about their life and cannot handle life’s deviations. Finally, Shane (Faizon Love) has been dumped by his wife and is taking the loss hard. He’s found comfort in a flighty twenty-year-old girl (Kali Hawk) that he can barely keep up with. The vacation is interrupted when the couples learn that they must participate in the resort’s relationship therapy sessions or leave. The couples must stick it out to in order to save failing relationships and ride those nifty Jet skis.
Couples Retreat sure doesn’t feel like any vacation for the audience. Directed by Peter “Ralphie” Billingsley (longtime friend and producing partner for Vaughn and Favreau), the pacing is leaden and the movie feels like its coasting without any momentum. Structurally, the plot is not your series of escalating events but more a relentless parade of tiny plot speed bumps, seemingly indistinguishable from the last. Many scenes just bump right into each other with little transition. Billingsley does not show that he comprehends the rhythms of comedy. Even at a mere 107 minutes, this movie felt twice as long to me. Like Peter Jackson’s King Kong, it just takes way too damn long for these people to get to the freaking island. I don’t need a half hour of setup for stock characters. Many scenes will go on too long and then just sort of come to an abrupt end, like Vaughn and his friends were saying, “Well, we’ve taken this as far as we can go. The scenes don’t end in climaxes or revelations or punch lines, they just end. So after a while I felt like Couples Retreat was one long draggy middle of a mediocre movie stretched out interminably. It’s the equivalent of an eternity of waiting in a doctor’s office.
The character work is haphazard at best. You would think with the premise involving introspection and communication that the screenplay might offer up some deeper characters. You would be mistaken. Each character is given one note/generalized conflict to work, and they stay exactly within that narrow field of play. The male-female dynamics are Joey and Lucy have been together since high school and now they each have wandering eyes. Of course this kind of waffling infidelity is played for such sophomoric yuk-yuks like Joey getting caught masturbating and Joey getting an erection during a massage. You see a trend there? Cynthia and Jason are too anal retentive about their lives and the fun has died out. Sounds like room for some comedy. Oh, and they are also having trouble conceiving, which is way too serious a topic for this kind of movie. It’s somewhat amusing to think of Vaughn as the most stable character in a family comedy; it’s sort of like when Christopher Walken was the voice of reason in 2004’s equally bad, Man on Fire. What is Vaughn’s problem exactly anyway? He’s a “video game seller” who spends too much time… selling video games? The particulars of his job are too nebulous; does he work at a large chain, does he work at a software production company, what does he do that he can’t bother helping out his wife for one afternoon? You could almost certainly eliminate Faizon Love’s character completely. He’s just in the movie to crank out obligatory “older guy with too young girl” jokes, and his resolution is so hackneyed and reliant upon ridiculous coincidence (surprise, his ex-wife has tracked him down to the resort!) that it hurts the brain.
The movie has the benefit of being made in one of the most gorgeous places on earth. I’m sure the cast and crew had a great time making this movie. Too bad it doesn’t translate well to the paying customers. I was surprised at how stodgy the overall film is. I expected it to look down on hedonism, and I appreciated the movie treating marriage as a serious commitment that constantly needs to be engaged, but what is up with how stuffy this message comes across? The people who aren’t in relationships are seen as little party animals looking for their next carefree fix. Sure marriage is going to look better to the masses when you make the alternative so irresponsible. However, prolonging unhappy, extremely dysfunctional couples who can no longer stand each other isn’t helping either. Can’t some dysfunctional couples just grow apart? Why must there be reprehensibly forced happy endings all around? Couples Retreat, after awhile, kind of feels like your grandmother lecturing you about your relationships.
There’s much potential for laughs with Couples Retreat, but you’ll do no better than scattered chuckles. This is definitely a case where all the good jokes were highlighted in the trailer. Couples Retreat squanders so much talent, mostly consisting of a boy’s club and giving the actresses little to do or play off of. Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid), Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and Davis (Sex and the City) are all very capable comedic actresses; Kali Hawk quickly becomes irritating with what she’s been given. The island therapists include the hilarious John Michael Higgins (The Ugly Truth) and Ken Jeong (The Hangover), who must be contractually obligated to appear in every movie this year. I would have thought that eccentric therapists plus the natural conflicts of couples counseling would have provided a wealth of funny material. It’s a shame then that the counseling scenes are kept short. It would be a better asset for this movie if it spent more time in therapy and less time doing goofy, trust building exercises by island guru Jean Reno. Seriously, swimming with sharks is supposed to help a deteriorating marriage how? There are comic setups that look like they’re going to lead to something juicy, and then they just fizzle, like a Guitar Hero battle that goes from silly to lame all too quick. A buff and tan yoga instructor (Carlos Ponce) gets a little too in touchy-feely with his female pupils. But then it stays at a distance, hammering home the same PG-13 safe sight gags. It’s like watching people dry hump for laughs. As I expected, the funniest parts are the naturally combative interplay between Vaughn and Favreau. Part of that may be because they’ve been friends for over a decade and part of that might be that both are credited as screenwriters, along with producer Dana Fox (What Happens in Vegas).
Let’s look at how I’ve described Couples Retreat in this review. Waiting in a doctor?s office. Listening to your grandmother condemn your relationship. Doesn’t sound like much of a good time, does it? The comedy consists of mostly one-liners with a whole lot of dead space in between. The characters are so limited, the actors are shamefully wasted, and the comic set pieces are too meandering to be amusing. Somewhere there’s an edgier, R-rated version of this movie that got scrubbed clean to fit a PG-13 mandate. You see glimpses of the naughtier movie Couples Retreat might have been. This is a movie in need of some serious counseling of its own.
Nate’s Grade: C
Undeniably well made, I just couldn’t emotionally connect with the main character, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirch). Chris turns his back on his affluent parents and his bourgeois lifestyle and heads off into the wilderness to experience nature and find what has been missing in his life. Director/screen adaptor Sean Penn turns Chris into a Jesus-like figure that touches all those who he encounters on his cross-country tour that will meet its end in Alaska. I found the character treatment to be a tad naive and off-putting, and his lack of communication with his family, especially his younger sister who was in the same boat with him, seems especially cruel. And yet, the movie has its share of transcendent moments that bury themselves deep inside you, like when Chris befriends an 80-year-old widower (Oscar nominee Hal Holbrook) who is given new life. The closing moments, when Chris has accepted is fate, is profoundly moving and exceptionally performed, and this is coming from a guy that felt an emotional disconnect from the main character. Into the Wild is lovely to watch with top-notch cinematography, a fabulous score by Eddie Vedder, and fine acting by a diverse cast. I’m very impressed by what Penn has accomplished here. However, I admire the movie more than I can embrace it, and it all goes back to the character of Chris. He’s a mystery and both romantic and frustrating, which is kind of a fit summation for the movie.
Nate’s Grade: B
Real-life couples have a rocky track record when they star together. Sure, for every Mr. and Mrs. Smith there’s also a Proof of Life, Vanilla Sky, or, God help us, a Gigli. The trouble is that what captures the fancies of two actors rarely translates to the big screen. Was anyone more the wiser why Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck got together on the set of Gigli? Now here comes The Break-Up, an anti-romantic comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston. They’ve been playing a coy game with the media about whether they’ve been dating since the movie wrapped a year ago. Audiences will have difficulty seeing whatever magic the two felt, because The Break-Up isn’t romantic in any sense of the word.
Gary (Vaughn) and Brooke (Aniston) meet cute at a Chicago Cubs game and begin a two-year relationship. Then one evening, after a terribly uncomfortable dinner between their folks, both decide to call off their romantic entanglement. Neither is willing to leave the condo they co-own, so each engages in a battle to convince the other to leave. Gary wardens off the living room as his space. Fine, Brooke invites her brother’s glee-club to perform in her area. He gets the pool table they had talked about waiting to purchase. She throws his clothes into the hall listening to Alanis Morissette. She invites dates over. He has a night of strip poker with actual strippers. At the same time, Brooke is questioning whether she can save their relationship and work things out.
Audiences expecting a cheeky romantic comedy will be soundly disappointed. The Universal marketing weasels have lied to you! After the 30-minute mark, The Break-Up doesn’t have much comedy, let alone romance. This is really more of a gutsy mainstream drama that prefers to exist in a world similar to ours where heartbreak and yearning are often unresolved. This is a respectably good, if flawed, relationship drama that doesn’t pull its punches. The Break-Up has a very Chasing Amy air to it; both films present atypical Hollywood relationships and both seem to sense a happy ending would just be insulting. Actually, in another similarity, both The Break-Up and Chasing Amy have their comedy completely dissolve by film’s end.
The biggest flaw The Break-Up has is that we don?t generally care if Brooke and Gary get back together. The only good times of yesterday we see are via photographs that are shown during the opening credits. Beyond this brief photo collage, we?re basically starting at the end of their union. There’s a fair amount of gender stereotypes to go along with the characters and their behaviors (men are from Mars, women from Venus?), though it didn’t bother me as much as it would have in a typical romantic comedy. Brooke is a bit of a nag but an altogether good person who just goes about her reconciliation plans in the wrong manner (push him away to have him come back, make him jealous, the famous double-speak). Gary, on the other hand, is pretty much a jerk. The tagline for The Break-Up says, “Pick a side,” but the movie already picks for us. Gary is a lazy, egotistical, unappreciative, selfish jackass and you’re really puzzled why Brooke would keep trying to resuscitate their relationship. Again, part of this is because The Break-Up doesn’t ever show us a moment of these two crazy kids in love. We really have no interest in seeing these unhappy people be unhappy with each other for a longer period of time.
The Break-Up has a lot of intentionally pained awkwardness to it, partly because good portions of the movie is about voyeuristically watching an unhappy couple argue. The Break-Up‘s relatability, something nearly unheard of in the overly saccharine, simplistic world of romantic comedies, is a double-edged sword. Couples may wince and pass knowing looks, thinking, “We’ve had that fight. I too crossed the line like that. I too went about that the wrong way.” Audiences will see pieces of themselves onscreen, but do mainstream audiences really want to see pieces of themselves screaming at each other for a whole movie? I doubt it. I think displeased moviegoers are going to tell their friends to stay away in droves, unless they’re avid tabloid followers.
Vaughn continues his motor mouth lout shtick, though it’s somewhat impressive that he willingly puts himself in such an unflattering light. He’s also a bit puffy in the movie. Aniston is an actress I haven’t been overly enthusiastic with, to say the least, but she’s a winning personality even if she’s replaceable. She seems to be in a frazzled rut. Despite whatever real-life passion the filming ignited, the leads have little chemistry together onscreen. This would be a bigger concern if the film was starting at the end of their relationship, though. The supporting cast of Vaughn’s friends and co-workers is rich with talent. A late scene between Vaughn and Favreau about hiring a hitman to take out Brooke’s supposed new beaux is solid gold. The wonderful John Michael Higgins (Arrested Development), as Brooke’s socially inept brother, provides the biggest laughs. And for those wondering what ever happened to Ralphie from A Christmas Story, here he is all growed up and emasculated by Joey Lauren Adams.
Director Peyton Reed (Bring it On, Down with Love) has a good feel for human comedy and interesting shot selections. He normally keeps his movies brisk and airy. The dialogue is above average and feels naturalistic. I am surprised that I have heard so little about Aniston’s brief nude scene. Then again, I don?t watch that recycled Entertainment Tonight TV vomit. It’s kind of neat to note that there was a 1998 movie itself called The Break Up; they just didn’t have the hyphen. Remember that hyphen in a few months when you’re at your local video store [Author’s note: R.I.P. video stores].
I give Vaughn and the filmmakers credit for trying something challenging and attempting to have a mainstream audience go along. The Break-Up is uncomfortable in how painfully awkward and relatable it is. Whether audiences want to flock to a movie about unhappy people who don’t belong together is a good question. This isn’t as nasty a comedy as The War of the Roses; no, this film is kind of stuck in a thematic middle ground of a gutsy, if flawed, relationship drama. Those expecting promises of comedy and romance might feel cheated. The Break-Up is like a real-life experience: it’s somewhat painful, somewhat expected, and perhaps better once it’s finally over.
Nate’s Grade: B-
My friend Amanda Evans is quite possibly the biggest Vince Vaughn fan in the United States, nay, the planet Earth. She used to watch Dodgeball every day. Her brother-in-law even went so far as to stage an intervention for her Vaughn addiction. She has been talking about Wedding Crashers for months and months and counting down the days like a kid waiting for Christmas. It’s safe to say that Amanda loved the movie but how would your otherwise non-obsessed moviegoer feel?
Jeremy (Vaughn) and John (Owen Wilson) are divorce attorneys by day and ladies men come nightfall. Both men crash weddings they were not invited to with the strict purpose of getting laid by horny bridesmaids. They have got their honey hunting down to a science, from what relative they’re related to, to when to cry, to whom to slow dance with to convince those bridesmaids that they’re sweet gentlemen. Jeremy says that one day when they?re old men they’ll both look back on these days and smile. John retorts, “We’re not that young.”
The Super Bowl of all weddings is the daughter of the Secretary of the Treasury (Christopher Walken). John has his eye on his other daughter Claire (Rachel McAdams) while Jeremy sets his sights on the Secretary’s other daughter, the wild and vivacious Gloria (Isla Fisher). The only problem for John is that he’s actually falling in love with Claire, oh and she’s engaged to a real jackass (Alias‘ Bradley Cooper). Jeremy and John are such big hits at the wedding that the Secretary invites them both to vacation with his family at their summer home. Jeremy is hesitant and wants to stick to the love-em-and-leave-em lifestyle he and his buddy are so accustomed to, but John drags him along convinced he can win Claire over.
Vaughn kills in every single scene. He hits punchline after punchline like some king of comedic prizefighter. His mile-a-minute delivery gels ever so nicely with Wilson’s homesy charm and drawl. These two have never been matched before as leading men but now their marriage seems like a match made in heaven. Their chemistry is off the chart. Wilson is essentially the straight man to Vaughn. In most comedies, “straight man” is just another term for boring. However, Wilson gets his shots in as well especially with his give and take with Vaughn, who is in a comedic zone all his own.
Not to be out done by the men, both McAdams and Fisher give great performances. McAdams (Mean Girls) is a rising star and it’s easy to see why. She’s a beautiful woman but also has some good teeth for comedy. In comedy terms, she’s the romantic interest, which means she’s an even straighter (read: boring) man than Wilson’s straight man. And handed with all this, McAdams still shines as a leading lady you can fall in love with. The true scene-stealer of Wedding Crashers is Fisher (Scooby-Doo), who goes hilariously tit-for-tat with Vaughn. You might walk away believing she’s truly out of her mind. Fisher has a physical gift for comedy that hasn’t been showcased before, but with Wedding Crashers she gets unleashed and we?re the better for it.
After the brilliant work of McAdams and Fisher, most of the supporting cast’s performances comes off as being too forced. Cooper is a wide-eyed grinning jackass that?s obvious from the get-go. He plays the role so big that his eyebrows seem permanently pressed to the top of his head. There’s also the weird introverted son who Typical Crazy Grandma berates as being “a homo.” But not only is he gay hes also a freak. The role seems quizzically garish and even a bit homophobic. Jane Seymore jumps at her role as mom in heat, but the film forgets about her fast after an awkward encounter with Wilson. Walken can make me laugh just by watching him stare (and he did), but even he isn’t given much more to work with besides the supportive dad role. It seems odd for a comedy with such huge belly laughs to have several supporting players grind the film’s funny down. All of this is excusable though because the far majority of the film’s attention and laughs are derived from our central quartet.
Wedding Crashers is a raunchy delight. You know you’re in good hands when, in one scene, Wilson and Vaughn are dipping bridesmaids on the dance floor and it cuts to these same bridesmaids now falling topless onto hotel beds. This is one R-rated comedy that proudly wears its rating on its sleeve. And for a sex comedy, there’s a surprising amount of laughs mined just out of an adult discussion on sex, which cannot be curtailed or couched with euphemisms and soft language. I don’t know whether to credit the screenwriters or the off-the-cuff improving of Wilson and Vaughn, but Wedding Crashers proves there’s still more under the sun to talk about and giggle.
Usually with movies revolving around hedonistic characters, they meet one of two ends: 1) they find that One True Girl that makes them want to go straight, or 2) they meet their hedonistic match and rethink their ways now that the shoe is on the other foot. Wedding Crashers doesn’t give you one of these options, oh no, it gives you both. Sure things gets awfully predictable after a great rush out of the gate, but the interplay between Wilson and Vaughn and some genuinely funny gags should keep most laughing until the surprise cameo at the end by the founder/guru of the wedding crashing rule book (it should be no surprise if you’ve seen any movie with Wilson and Vaughn the last three years). The climax is a bit drawn out and Wedding Crashers is still another comedy built around deception whose climax involves apologizing for said deception. It’d be tiresome if the movie weren’t so damn funny.
Despite the sleazy premise, Wedding Crashers has a sweet and gooey center. These are two men who know exactly what women want and they’re eager to give it to them. They just don’t know what they really want, but when they find it both Jeremy and John set their minds to romantic conquests outside of the bedroom. It’s this gooey center that makes the characters likeable despite any misgivings an audience may hold over their wedding crashing plot.
Two hours is a near eternity for most comedies and Wedding Crashers seems to lose its sprint in the last 20-30 minutes. The film starts getting repetitious and overly predictable with few laughs to cover up. Wilson and Vaughn still make it work but the setup seems to have been taken as far as it will go and then some.
Wedding Crashers is a loud, jovial, ribs-in-the-elbows funny return to the crass classics of the 1970s R-rated comedy. Vaughn and Wilson are perfectly matched and McAdams and Fisher shine like stars. Wedding Crashers is a bawdy good time that will leave you aching from laughing so hard. This movie is profane, simple, crude, and joyously so. It does run out of gas toward its protracted climax and some of the supporting performances feel forced, but Wedding Crashers is easily the funniest film of the year. Amanda was foiled in seeing the film three times the weekend it opened. She had to settle for only seeing it twice. I don’t think she has slept since (UPDATE: Amanda has since seen the movie five more times).
Nate’s Grade: B+
The new action comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith sure seems to be in the headlines a lot. Most from tabloids trying to connect Angelina Jolie as the catalyst for why Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston have filed for divorce. You can’t walk past a checkout counter without being screamed at by 15 magazine covers. Too bad the actual movie seems to be forgotten in the process. That’s a shame because Mr. and Mrs. Smith is one terrifically fun summer ride that you don’t want to get off of (kind of like Jolie and/or Pitt, depending upon which way you swing).
Things aren’t so peachy for the Smiths (Jolie and Pitt). They met and married in Columbia amid a flurry of action but now it seems like their lives have become quite mundane as husband and wife. Life at work, though, is quite the opposite. Mr. and Mrs. Smith are hiding a whopper of a secret — that they’re hired assassins. They’ve both been hired to take out the same mark (Adam Brody) and accidentally discover each other’s true identity. Of course both spies are now compromised so they’re assigned to bump off their spouse. And you thought your marriage was murder. Mr. and Mrs. Smith combat their real feelings and put the spark back into their marriage by trying to kill each other, the little taught alternative in marriage counseling courses.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith has a vibrant sex appeal to it. Pitt and Jolie are extraordinarily beautiful people, no question, but they also have sizzling chemistry. The looks they give could ignite the screen. Even when they’re at each other’s throats you like them and hope for the best. The stars’ sex appeal and the film’s off kilter tone collides in fun ways. A knockout, drag-out fight between husband and wife turns into foreplay that literally brings the house down. The most unbelievable aspect of the movie is the idea that these gorgeous people would grow sexually tired with one another.
The leads are terrific and terrific together. Jolie has finally found the right role for her. She’s the perfect balance between tough and sexy. She could very easily kick my ass and look good doing it. Originally Nicole Kidman was going to play Mrs. Smith before scheduling conflicts put the kibosh on that. I can not see Kidman working. I’m not afraid of Kidman, but with Jolie I’d do whatever she says. Jolie has a real kick in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the audience can feel it too. It also helps that she looks absolutely magnificent. Finally, her beauty and wildness are put to excellent use. I’ve always thought Pitt got a bad rap as an actor for being pretty. Sure, he’s built like a Greek God (and played one in Troy) but this man can act. People seem to forget he was nominated for an Oscar for Twelve Monkeys. Pitt exudes a natural calm and always seems a smirk away from getting out of anything. These traits serve him well as a smooth criminal. Even when he’s whacking people with a golf club he seems easygoing.
The tone needs to be very specific for Mr. and Mrs. Smith to work. I mean, one false step and husband and wife revitalizing their marriage by trying to kill each other turns from funny to horrifying. Mrs. and Mrs. Smith walks that delicate line but nails the jaunty, tongue-in-cheek tone needed to make this movie soar. When you boil it down, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is essentially a modern day screwball romance. Instead of sparring with witticisms they spar with heavy-duty weaponry (I can only imagine what Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn could have done with knives and bazookas).
After Mr. and Mrs. Smith find out the true identities of their spouses, they both know it’s kill-or-be-killed. Both tread very carefully and are highly suspicious that any little thing, like a glass of wine, a trip to the bathroom, could be the trigger to their demise. Now, if the tone weren’t exactly perfect, this sequence would seem overly silly or overly cruel. Instead, the sequence comes across as being very funny. Pitt and Jolie nail the casual awkwardness as they test one another. Even the ending of Mr. and Mrs. Smith is laugh-out-loud perfect with the film’s vibe. I will go so far to say it’s the greatest ending line for a film since 1959’s Some Like it Hot.
It seems that if you want your action done right, you call Doug Liman to be director. Liman, as he did with 2002’s stellar The Bourne Identity, can craft highly imaginative, stylish, and playful action sequences that are low on pesky CGI and high on thrills. He makes sure the audience can witness every balletic move of his orchestration. He’s likes his fireballs big, though not Michael Bay the-sun-is-exploding big. If you want an inventive use of ordinary objects, Liman’s your man. There’s a fabulous car chase that utilizes a mini-van in surprising and gleeful ways. While dodging bullets and bad guys, Mr. Smith slides the vehicle’s doors open on both sides. When a bad guy jumps into the car, he grabs the baddie and swings him out the other side in one continuous motion.
This isn’t a movie to take too seriously. Yes, the plot is pretty goofy at turns and the Smiths seem nigh invincible. Yes, the bad guys are all terrible shots. Yes, it would be unlikely for the Smiths to take out 100 or so armed men surrounding them. Yes, it seems like the resolution would be cloudy because they’d still be wanted as husband and wife assassins. Yes, Brody is wearing a Fight Club T-shirt. None of this matters. Of course a world of super spies and gadgets is going to be goofy, but Mr. and Mrs. Smith never winks at the camera. This is one romantic comedy with a macabre edge and a devilish sense of humor. I was thoroughly entertained from start to finish.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith is the big blast of fun I’ve been waiting Hollywood to deliver all year. The action sequences are inventive, exciting, and quite sexy. Seeing the two hottest people on the planet (Thora Birch excluded, obviously) kiss, fight, shoot each other, and blow stuff up is entertainment in itself, but the chemistry between Jolie and Pitt is in the five-alarm area. This will not be a movie for everyone. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is about married assassins who do kill people and get off on trying to kill each other. But for people who like their summer ventures to have a little malevolent glee, Mr. and Mrs. Smith will hit the right note. I can only hope for the eventual sequel – Mr. and Mrs. Smith Go to Washington. Imagine that potential filibuster sequence and try not to smile. You can’t!
Nate’s Grade: A-