Thursday, April 28, 2011

2 Fast 2 Furious — Retrospective Review

(In preparation for the release of Fast Five, I'm going to be rewatching and reviewing the two movies in the franchise that are on Netflix Watch Instantly, The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious. Since these are the entries I remember next to nothing about, this works out perfectly.)

In contrast to The Fast and the Furious, it turns out that 2 Fast 2 Furious is actually better than I remembered it. Which isn't to say it even approaches goodness, but to my shock the two movies are actually pretty even, quality-wise — the first one was a bad movie I remembered as mediocre, this one is a bad movie I remembered as an abomination. How time distorts things.

I don't doubt that my sour impression at the time was in part a reaction to Vin Diesel's absence. Which is a bummer, don't get me wrong, but it's a much easier pill to swallow knowing that he would return for a cameo in Tokyo Drift and then again as a lead in the next two (or more) movies after that. It's funny that despite Paul Walker's Brian O'Conner technically being the first film's protagonist, this one still ends up feeling like a spin-off rather than a proper sequel simply due to the lack of Dominic Toretto, the franchise's iconic central figure.

The filmmakers attempt to fill the Diesel-sized hole with Tyrese Gibson as a new partner for Brian O'Conner (with Eva Mendes, Ludacris, and Devon Aoki standing in for the absent supporting cast of Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, and Matt Schulze), but although Tyrese is likable enough as the brash and impulsive but ultimately goodhearted ex-criminal Roman Pearce and has decent chemistry with Walker, it's just not the same. Diesel is singular.

On the plot level, it's kind of doing the same damn thing as the last movie. Brian O'Conner is now an ex-cop, fired after the events of the first film, but that's only relevant for the first fifteen or so minutes (just long enough for him to get into a race through the curiously empty streets of nighttime Miami). Soon the cops bring him back in and send him undercover as a driver once again to infiltrate yet another criminal's crew and get to the heart of his illegal activities (with Tyrese's Roman Pearce joining in the undercover gig). The difference is that this time, rather than a lovable lughead and secondary hero, the sting target is the slimy, rich, vile and murderous Carter Verone, the movie's villain.

In this respect the film trumps the original. I mean, Carter Verone is just your typical cheeseball 80s action bad guy twenty years late to the party, but compared to the original film's Johnny Tran he may as well be Darth Vader. He actually has meaningful screentime and interactions with the protagonists and character traits. In one scene he tortures a guy by pinning a rat to the guy's stomach with a metal bucket then heating the bucket with a blowtorch so the rat has to chew through him to escape. That's some hardcore nasty shit!

The film is also better-paced than the original. If you'll recall, I griped that The Fast and the Furious goes out with a sad little whimper in its climactic action scene, a chase between two cars and two motorcycles. 2 Fast 2 Furious, on the other hand, comes to an appropriately big and noisy culmination in a scene with fifty-someodd cars leading cops on a chase and then Paul Walker and Tyrese jumping their car off a ramp onto a moving boat. I'm not saying any of this is great filmmaking by any stretch, but at least it isn't anticlimactic.

But the movie is much blander than the original in terms of personality and setting. While I may find drag races in quarter mile straight lines to be insanely boring, the first film still had a somewhat unique and entertaining flavor as a look into that culture and the competitiveness and family and sheer love of cars surrounding it. This one recaptures that just a little in its opening race sequence, but as soon as O'Conner and his new partner Roman take back up with the cops it just turns into a pretty straight Miami Vice riff, right down to the rich drug lord bad guy. There's that spin-off vibe again: lose Dominic and substantially up the cop movie feel and suddenly the spirit is missing.

The movie also suffers from overbadass syndrome. Of course, this franchise revolves around impossibly tough, impossibly cool, impossibly talented drivers, so some badassery is expected and required. But the first movie at least had Brian lose his initial race, one of Dom's crew get killed off, the botched truck heist sequence, and so on. All the rest of the movies have a mix of lost races, dead allies, and setbacks for our heroes. But in this one, Brian and Roman are basically having a great time infiltrating and bringing down Verone's operation, succeeding at every single task, suffering no loses or setbacks, and effortlessly overcoming every obstacle set in their way with grins on their faces.

In one early sequence where Verone has tryouts for his precision driving crew, Brian and Roman are not only miles ahead, but so confident in their victory that they're laughing and trying to one-up each other with fancy driving stunts along the way, such as Brian spinning around and tooling down the freeway in reverse. And there's no twist or anything either — they're just that much better than every other driver, and they win by miles, period. The movie pretty well maintains that tension-free tone for its entirety.

It's because of that flavorlessness and smugness, even more so than Toretto's absence, that 2 Fast 2 Furious is still the franchise's worst film, and not something I could recommend to anyone with a straight face unless they're marathoning the series as I am. But I'm man enough to admit that I had condemned it just a little too harshly over these last eight years. Having recently suffered through the likes of The Mechanic, I'm familiar with just how much worse an action movie can be. Reap the benefits of lowered standards, 2 Fast 2 Furious.

2 Stars out of 5

The Fast and the Furious — Retrospective Review

(In preparation for the release of Fast Five, I'm going to be rewatching and reviewing the two movies in the franchise that are on Netflix Watch Instantly, The Fast and the Furious and 2 Fast 2 Furious. Since these are the entries I remember next to nothing about, this works out perfectly.)

The Fast and the Furious is actually, in many respects, a worse film than I remember, or at least a dumber one. Having just rewatched it for the first time since its theatrical release ten years ago, I'm struck anew by both how structureless and awkwardly-paced it is and how the act of racing cars in quarter mile straight lines may in fact be the most boring "sport" on the planet. Now I feel almost obligated to rewatch 2009's Fast & Furious and see if my recollection of it being a little worse than the original is accurate. I mean, it's obvious that neither is as good as the awesome The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, but Tokyo Drift and Fast & Furious share director Justin Lin, who in Better Luck Tomorrow and the first season of Community proved his brilliance. This first installment is from Rob Cohen, who since 2001 has directed xXx, Stealth, and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, proving that he wouldn't know a good movie if it came up and shat on his face.

The most concise way to describe The Fast and the Furious is that it's bro as hell. Full of laughable macho posturing, an aggressively unyielding hip hop soundtrack, "yo check this out" and "aw hell yeah man" dialogue, and of course lovingly-photographed muscle cars as far as the eye can see. It's the sort of movie where, upon Vin Diesel and Paul Walker pulling up beside a ferrari at a stoplight, the ferrari driver starts insulting them, Diesel turns to Walker and says "smoke him," and they engage in an impromptu hip hop-scored drag race for absolutely no reason whatsoever. The closest thing to an emotional beat is Diesel monologuing about how he confronted the driver who killed his father in a racing accident and nearly beat him to death with a wrench (a monologue which contains the immortal and hilarious line "I live my life a quarter mile at a time," the one part of the film I remembered clearly ten years later).

For those who don't know or don't remember, the plot is basically Leonardo DiCaprio's half of The Departed, except set in the Los Angeles street racing scene and with the equivalent of Jack Nicholson's character being guilty not of mass murder but of being a comical tough guy stereotype. Paul Walker plays Brian O'Conner, an LAPD cop going undercover as a gearhead street racer in order to infiltrate Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel)'s crew and find out who in the underground street racing scene has been hijacking trucks and stealing electronics. Brian also inadvertently falls for Dom's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) and clashes with Dom's right hand man Vince (Matt Schulze). There's some other characters in the crew, who, while being just differentiated enough not to be interchangeable, are fairly irrelevant.

There's an antagonist too, an Asian gangster / street racer named Johnny Tran (Rick Yune, more familiar to me as Zao from Die Another Day), but to call him a one-dimensional villain is an insult to one-dimensional villains. He has about ten minutes of screentime and no real traits except being tough and smug and a good driver. He kills one guy, blows up Paul Walker's car, and tortures a mechanic into giving him parts by pouring gasoline down his throat, but by action movie standards Johnny Tran is about as intimidating as a relatively large and angry moth, failing to really even serve an antagonist's defined purpose of driving the action until the final ten minutes or so.

Which brings us to the movie's strange pacing. The first two acts are mostly fine, consisting of Brian integrating himself into Dom's crew and occasionally checking in with the cops, mixing in a car-centric action scene here and there (although the movie plays its cards too quickly, having Dom and Vince come to suspect Brian is a cop only about 45 minutes in and then awkwardly sweeping that large narrative dust bunny under the rug until the climax). But everything seems to be building towards the horrifically-named "Race Wars" — don't worry, you haven't stumbled into an American History X review, it's just a drag race tournament — which we then see less than five minutes of, without Brian or Dom participating in a single race.

The film accelerates from that point into a fairly impressive truck heist sequence which could have served as a final action set piece if only it were narratively climactic. But it doesn't really resolve anything, and the movie's actual climax, barring a final racing rematch between Brian and Dom (which I count more as part of the denouement), is a rather boring and lazy chase scene with two guys in cars pursuing two guys on motorcycles. It's a scene that wouldn't have impressed anywhere in the movie, but especially not at the end when you're hoping the the story will go out with a spectacular bang. Instead, it runs out of gas.

All the performances, including Michelle Rodriguez, pulsate with fratty energy. I'd always thought of Paul Walker as the prototypical bland, vanilla movie star, but time had washed away the memory of how genuinely awful he is in this film. His attempts at looking and sounding tough elicit sputtering laughter, his amateurish line readings often coming across like they forgot to tell him that this was an actual take and not rehearsal. Matt Schulze is way more entertaining as Dom's lieutenant and Brian's rival; he too feels a couple years removed from the frat house, but a rougher frat house where he at least got in a brawl or two.

I'd also forgotten how young Jordana Brewster is in this first film. Well, maybe "forgotten" isn't the right word — she was a few years older than me when I first saw The Fast and the Furious during the summer between freshman and sophomore year of high school, so it probably didn't occur to me back then. But my memories had mentally replaced her with the contemporary Jordana Brewster of Chuck and Fast & Furious, so it was startling to rewatch and see that she's basically a girl in it, younger than the vast majority of actors and actresses who play high school students. On the performance level, she's fine. Cute enough, unremarkable. Better than Paul Walker, anyway.

But it's Vin Diesel who walks away with the thing. I'd spent these last ten years thinking of him as the main character and was a little surprised to go back and see that Brian O'Conner is clearly the protagonist, with way more screentime. But Diesel's screen presence overwhelms Walker completely. Vin Diesel, like Arnold before him, really encapsulates the difference between an actor and a movie star. However flat his line readings, however much his depiction of emotion looks like he's trying to take a dump, there's just something inherently magnetic and watchable about him. He couldn't come anywhere close to saving Babylon A.D., the sixth worst movie of the last ten years, but he does come close to saving this one.

The other sincere compliment I can give The Fast and the Furious is one that's only become more relevant since 2001: the near-complete lack of CGI. Now, having seen Rob Cohen's The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, I can tell you that this was a decision born of financial limitations, not artistic integrity, but in this case the former begat the latter. Here are real stunts, real stunt drivers, real cars getting smashed and flipped and blown up, and you can see it; you can instantly tell the difference. This is by no means the best action movie of recent years this applies to (part of Casino Royale's greatness is that the crane chase, car crash, Vienna building collapse and so on are done sans computer graphics), but it's something I really appreciated.

Doesn't make it a good movie, though.

2 Stars out of 5

Sunday, April 24, 2011

NBC Sitcom Roundup for 4/21/11

The Office, Season 7 Episode 21 — "Michael's Last Dundies"

Sadly, I have to take back the nice things I said about Deangelo Vickers after last week's "Training Day." Not that I think Will Ferrell himself is screwing up what's given to him, but it unfortunately seems that the writers have no interest in or intention of giving Deangelo any kind of consistent, coherent personality or dynamic with the rest of the office. The Southwest-loving straight man with an antipathy for babies, a tendency for subtle power plays and who views Andy as the office funnyguy has vanished without a trace, replaced by a bundle of neuroses and stage fright and now brushed off or even made fun of by the people who seven days earlier were openly sucking up to him. The writers also went for the WILL FERRELL TALKING LOUDLY gag they so expertly avoided last week. A shame.

Outside of Deangelo, the episode was intermittently amusing without ever being great. I liked the introduction video to the Dundies, Phyllis' quiet indignity at Stanley getting all the diabetes attention, Toby's uncertainty that they convicted the real Scranton Strangler, Erin hiding from Gabe (and Jim wanting nothing to do with it), Michael's analysis of the Godfather trilogy, and Ryan rationalizing not being named office hottie.

The "Seasons of Love" parody song really didn't work, though. It's a fine, difficult line to walk between emotional and schmaltzy (one that The Office did successfully with Michael's proposal to Holly a few weeks back, and Parks and Recreation provided a veritable master class in with last week's "Andy and April's Fancy Party"), and that scene stumbled headfirst into schmaltzville. Altogether, a kind of disappointing penultimate episode for Michael Scott. Let's hope they recover quickly and don't pull a Lost with his finale next week.

Funniest Moment: Definitely Michael's interpretation of Jim in his Dundies introduction video ("Hey, you wanna listen to some records?"). That that's how Michael has viewed Jim all this time is so absurd yet makes so much sense.

Parks and Recreation, Season 3 Episode 10 — "Soulmates"

Granted, "Soulmates" was the weakest episode since February's "Ron & Tammy: Part Two." But these are Parks and Recreation standards we're going by here; by ordinary sitcom standards it was still really great. Chris and Ron Swanson's burger cook-off was hilarious (and made me crave a burger more intensely than I ever have in my entire life), while further solidifying Ron and April as having the greatest boss-henchman dynamic on television. I loved most everything about the trips to the health and discount food stores. My one hesitation is that they need to be careful not to make Ron Swanson too victorious all the time, or else the character will start to grow tired. On occasion he needs to be taken down a peg.

Leslie and Tom's non-romantic A-plot I was a little iffier on. There was nothing really wrong with it and it had its share of smiles and chuckles, but it was light on true belly laughs (outside of "FUCK YOU ANN!", of course). And as I've mentioned before, I'm still not quite where the show wants me to be in regards to Leslie and Ben's romantic tension.

Funniest Moment: It's tempting to go with Ron and April throwing out the vegan bacon, but for whatever reason my absolute favorite thing was how happy Ron was about shopping at Food and Stuff.

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 20/21 — "100"

What a great tribute to the entirety of 30 Rock. It's no secret that, despite a relatively strong season, I think 30 Rock's best days are behind it, but this episode gave me wonderfully nostalgic flashbacks to when I considered it the best comedy on television. The combination of bringing Liz and Jack's relationship to the forefront (and deconstructing it going back to the pilot), Tracy reentering the narrative in a big way, a plethora of great guest stars both new and classic, more writers room and TGS antics than we've had in a while, and a smattering of flashbacks (not nearly enough to actually consider it a "clip show," just a couple minutes worth spread across an hourlong episode) coalesced to form what's certainly one of the three or four best episodes the show has had in its last couple years, and probably the single warmest and most pleasant to watch for the longtime 30 Rock fan. And seeing as I watched the pilot live on television on October 11th, 2006, it don't get much more longtime than me. Whatever shit I may occasionally give it, this is one of the all-time great sitcoms.

Funniest Moment: "I'm gettin' too old for this 'shh' sound that comes from this gas pipe."

Community, Season 2 Episode 21 — "Paradigms of Human Memory"

After a funny but relatively generic episode last week, Community again brings the brilliance and reaffirms its status as my second-favorite sitcom of all time. Despite being by far the best sitcom episode of the week this will be a short writeup, because I don't have that much coherent criticism to offer outside of just listing everything that happened and being like "Yep, loved that. Loved that. Laughed my ass off at that." This isn't the first sitcom episode to use the "fake clip show" format (Clerks: The Animated Series notably did so in its second episode, "The Clipshow Wherein Dante and Randal are Locked in the Freezer and Remember Some of the Great Moments in Their Lives," over ten years ago), but it's definitely my new favorite example. All those locations must have made this episode the biggest pain in the ass to shoot since Halloween's zombie apocalypse, and you gotta admire them going to an Old West set and getting Old West costumes for what amounted to thirty seconds of screentime.

I loved the return of Annie's Boobs, I loved seeing the Christmas claymation special from the real world POV, I loved Abed's love of The Cape (even if I hated The Cape myself), I loved Chang stuck on the outside of the diorama looking in, I loved the gang in an insane asylum, I loved Pierce trying to become a living god, I loved Jeff's final clip show speech, and now I find that I'm just listing things I loved exactly like I said I wasn't going to. Wrapping it up! This show rules.

Funniest Moment: The parody of Jeff / Annie shipper fan videos was brilliant, hilarious, and ballsy as hell in the way that, for over a minute of screentime, it didn't even pretend to be coherent or accessible to people who haven't followed Community fandom beyond their televisions. The brilliance and hilarity then exploded to unprecedented new heights with the Pierce / Abed shipper fan video. I love this show.

Weekly Power Rankings: 1. Community 2. 30 Rock 3. Parks and Recreation 4. The Office

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

NBC Sitcom Roundup for 4/14/11

The Office, Season 7 Episode 20 — "Training Day"

I'm always leery when it comes to major celebrities (outside of those already in the main cast) setting foot in Dunder Mifflin. I don't know what it is about the energy of The Office that makes it feel more insular than other big sitcoms in that way, but something always felt just a little off to me when Kathy Bates was on the show, and that applies doubly to Will Ferrell. There's just no way to truly look at Deangelo Vickers and think "Deangelo Vickers" rather than "Will Ferrell." The power of the celebrity overwhelms the character.

But with that said, I absolutely think Ferrell did a good job. His character was a little poorly defined — sometimes he bordered on being a Michael clone (most notably in the cold open), sometimes he seemed like a straightforward everyman (his reaction to Kelly's attempted meet cute), sometimes he showed a darker side ("Drink some soap!") — but within those parameters Ferrell was surprisingly understated and, yes, funny. The writers buckled the hell down and delivered the funniest episode since February's "PDA" last Thursday, giving good moments to Deangelo, of course, but also providing wiggle room for Erin and Andy to slay. The talking head with a shellshocked Andy despondently accepting his new office funnyguy duties was perfection.

The one character who I thought was a bit weakly serviced comedically was Michael himself. "I happen to like the hilarious hijinks that I get myself into" was a great line, and he was involved in both of my personal funniest moments of the episode, but really, Erin was the star of both. The next two weeks might drift towards the maudlin, particularly when it comes to Steve Carell, but hopefully there'll be some bona fide Michael hilarity to accompany that. Let's send him off on a comedic as well as emotional high note, Office!

Funniest Moment: Deangelo's final line was pretty spectacular, but still, Erin's two big scenes — being caught in the middle of Michael and Deangelo's differing phone instructions and trying to shave Michael — trumped it in how long and loud I laughed. I'm glad Ellie Kemper is getting a shot at a real big screen role in Bridesmaids this summer. With a little luck (and faith in the mainstream viewing audience), she could definitely have some degree of legitimate stardom ahead of her.

Parks and Recreation, Season 3 Episode 9 — "Andy and April's Fancy Party"

What a lovely little episode. I mean, I wasn't bellowing with laughter from one end to the other, but this was 22 minutes of blissfully pleasant television. I was just in a good mood after watching. And I give enormous kudos to the writers for springing a key "mythology" episode on us with absolutely no warning whatsoever, in sharp contrast to all the brouhaha surrounding Jim and Pam's wedding on The Office. I don't read spoilers or anything so I had no idea this was the April / Andy wedding episode until they told Leslie in the kitchen, and even then I didn't really expect them to go through with it, but nope! It was legit. Man and wife, baby.

Everything surrounding the wedding was Parks perfection. Ron Swanson and his ex-wife effigies (not to mention his tooth in the cold open); Jerry and his terrible shirt; Tom struggling for best man supremacy; every moment with Chris; and the sullen goth teenager Orin, who makes a great addition to the Parks universe and simply must return in future episodes. And April and Andy themselves, of course. I'm rooting for those two boneheads to make it work.

My one major critique: I'm not feeling the romantic chemistry the show wants me to be feeling between Leslie and Ben. I just get platonic vibes there, no matter how much they try to convince me otherwise. If they kiss I'm worried it'll just freak me out.

Funniest Moment: Not to be confused with my favorite moment, would could be any one of several heartwarming scenes, but the biggest laugh was the animal trainers throwing the dead bird onto the living room floor and then the one going "Okay. Alright, so that one is dead — we know that."

30 Rock, Season 5 Episode 19 — "I Heart Connecticut"

"I Heart Connecticut" was a pretty ho-hum, down-the-middle 30 Rock. I watched, I chuckled, I doubt I'll remember anything about it a few weeks from now. Liz and Kenneth's hunt for Tracy had a few laughs (and one particularly big one, mentioned down below), and it was nice to finally get a solid Tracy scene at the end for the first time in months. Tracy's line about ketchup was hilarious. It seemed like Jack and Jenna's titular Connecticut B-plot was attempting to satirize something, although (outside of torture porn) I'm not entirely sure what. Unusually, I actually thought Pete's subplot was the high point of the episode. There's something I can't say but once or twice a year.

Funniest Moment: This is nowhere near as big a laugh as my funniest Office and Parks moments this week, but Liz telling Kenneth to act normal before getting on webcam with Tracy and Kenneth immediately greeting Tracy with "Hello, I'm a baby!" in a British (?) accent, followed by Liz hissing "What are you doing?!" was wonderfully absurd.

Community, Season 2 Episode 20 — "Competitive Wine Tasting"

Oddly, despite a lot of individual funny moments and three guest stars — Kevin Corrigan, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Michelle Krusiec — who I like a lot, "Competitive Wine Tasting" never quite gelled into a cohesive comedic whole for me. I guess this was due in part to how disconnected every subplot felt from every other subplot and how each was pretty predictable as soon as it got past the setup stage. Pierce's engagement to Wu Mei being exposed as a sham, Abed showing up his professor in the realm of classic sitcom trivia, and Troy having to reveal that his molestation was fake were exactly how you'd expect each subplot to play out, and they did, with little deviation.

Within those limits, however, there were lots of little moments to enjoy. Particularly in Troy and Britta's subplot, with Kevin Corrigan getting a great spotlight, Garrett's traumatic non-childhood memory of playground taunting, and Britta kissing Troy, perhaps the episode's one unexpected twist. I'm curious to see if there'll be any followup on or fallout from that throughout the remainder of the season.

Funniest Moment: God help me, but my biggest laugh was Britta announcing to Pierce's engagement party that Troy was molested. Stephen Tobolowsky opening the drawer wide enough to reveal the pistol before opening it wider to reveal What WAS Happening?: An Analysis of What's Happening was also a perfect sight gag.

Weekly Power Rankings: 1. Parks and Recreation 2. The Office 3. Community 4. 30 Rock

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Scream 4

(Note — This review is spoiler-free until after the cut. Obviously I don't count stuff like "there's a masked killer slashing people" as spoiler material, nor do I count common knowledge about the fifteen-year-old original Scream, but info about who lives, who dies, and who the killer is in Scream 4 is safely tucked away.)

It's no secret that straight-up body count horror is probably my least favorite film genre. I think I've given it more than a fair shake — I've watched most of the essential "classics," and in the last couple of years alone I've seen the assorted reboots and remakes of Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Sorority Row — and I'm yet to be convinced that the genre consists of much more than turgid exercises in formula.

But then there's Scream; a slasher movie I not only like but consider a classic and probably one of my top ten films of 1996. It's just so funny and so instantly watchable and has such a great lineup of characters by the standards of the horror genre, and it achieves all that without even being particularly gory beyond the opening gutting of Drew Barrymore. The collegiate Scream 2 was also pretty good — not great, but still well above the ninetieth percentile as go slasher flicks — but Scream 3 sucked donkey balls.

And that brings us to Scream 4, the decade-later third sequel I'm not sure anyone asked for. But it turns out Scream 2 and Scream 3 aren't so relevant — the filmmakers understand that it's Scream people carry fondness and nostalgia for, so while the events of Scream 2 and 3 are barely mentioned, Scream is so integral to Scream 4's plot and so frequently and intimately referenced that the film might as well be in Latin if you aren't familiar with the events that went down in Woodsboro circa 1996.

Sidney Prescott is back in Woodsboro on the anniversary of the original killings for a booksigning (she's an author now, kind of random, but whatever), along with her publicist, awesomely played by Community's Alison Brie. The now-married Gale Weathers and Officer Dewey are around too, as is Sidney's teenaged cousin Jill Roberts (Emma Roberts) and a plethora of Jill's teen friends (most notably Hayden Panettiere as a horror buff, but also Marielle Jaffe, Erik Knudsen, Rory Culkin, Nico Tortorella, Friday Night Lights' Aimee Teegarden, and so on). And, well, I think you know what happens next: a Ghostface killer starts calling people, asking about scary movies, and slicing them up.

If you're looking for bloody kills, they're definitely here; quite a few more than in the original Scream. If you're looking for commentary on scary movies (including lip service towards torture porn and the remake bonanza), it's here every bit as much as ever, in close enough to every single scene. And if you're looking for nostalgia for the first movie, you're covered.

Unfortunately, other key components of the original's greatness aren't so well-represented. Likable characters, for one. I loved Alison Brie on account of, well, being Alison Brie, and I kind of enjoyed the cops played by Adam Brody and Anthony Anderson, but the new teen cast is so, so uninteresting. At no point was I ever actually concerned for any of their lives or upset when one of them got offed, in contrast to, say, Randy Meeks from the initial Scream trilogy. There's also a strange lack of menace and energy to the film — teenagers are getting butchered, yet everyone seems to be simply going about their days and hanging out without a care in the world.

The horror film commentary, while undeniably present, no longer feels like they're playing with clich├ęs so much as just acknowledging that they exist and then immediately adhering to them. Even by slasher standards, there are too many scenes that require characters to suffer sudden, intense bouts of retardation to get them where the plot needs them to be (and I have more thoughts on specifics beyond the spoiler cut).

Overall, the movie is absolutely better than Scream 3, which had a cast of characters that far exceed this one in sheer dullness and a final reveal that was astounding in how apathetic it made me feel. And it's also better than Sorority Row or the new Nightmare on Elm Street. It's watchable. It just fails to match the first two in freshness, wit, or, since it's difficult to care about the characters, scares. Check it out if and only if you love Scream, but don't expect anything special.

2 Stars out of 5

But we ain't done yet! Full spoiler talk beyond the cut! Pun partially intended!

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Eagle

The Eagle may be the most unexpectedly enjoyable movie of 2011 to date. Not the best movie — it's trumped by Rango, The Lincoln Lawyer, and Source Code off the top of my head — but simply the most pleasant surprise. The wildly lukewarm critical response and presence of Channing Tatum indicated overwhelming mediocrity, but turns out it's an underrated, eminently watchable meat 'n' potatoes action-adventure flick that I'd recommend to anyone looking for some unpretentious fun. Way, way before I'd recommend Battle: Los Angeles for the same thing, that's for damn sure.

Channing Tatum plays (the fictional) Marcus Flavius Aquila, a second-century Roman centurion and son of a commander in the (nonfictional) Ninth Legion, which disappeared in northern Britain twenty years earlier. Despite that lingering shame, Marcus up and proves himself as a military commander before being wounded and honorably discharged, leaving him despondent and with little to live for. He later saves a slave named Esca from execution by gladiator, and the two take off into hostile and unexplored northern British territory to track down and recover the Ninth Legion's lost golden eagle standard. Needless to say, fights, battles, and chases ensue.

The relationship between Marcus and Esca gives the movie an interesting hook as it doesn't take the easy way out of having them be buddy-buddy as soon as Marcus rescues him. In fact, Esca makes it known shortly thereafter that he loathes Marcus, the Romans, and everything they stand for and would just as soon see them all dead, but he is honor bound to Marcus for saving his life. The movie lets this tension simmer admirably and occasionally erupt as they plunge deeper into enemy territory and the titles of master and slave become increasingly blurred and meaningless, and it's actually pretty fun to watch. I don't think I'm spoiling anything to reveal that they gradually begin to develop some mutual respect, and I like that the movie makes them get there from the ground level. Jamie Bell is pretty likable as Esca, and hell, I'll admit it, even Channing isn't too bad.

There's nothing overwhelmingly special or fancy about the fights and larger battle sequences, but if there's one thing the CGI headache of Sucker Punch should have taught us it's that sometimes less is more. A few dudes banging swords together is A-OK so long as it's decently choreographed, has some weight to it, and you're reasonably invested in the characters at hand. It's all PG-13 safe, and while I probably would have liked it more with some R-rated bloodshed, that's only because I'm a bloodthirsty savage. There's no real swearing and not the slightest hint of sexuality, so as is the movie is pretty safe for grandparents everywhere.

As with last year's Centurion, there's something slightly uncomfortable about the movie positioning Romans — i.e. the invading force — as our heroes and the British — i.e. defenders of their country — as the villains. It feels a bit like rooting for the Galactic Empire. But in all fairness, both The Eagle and Centurion avoid depicting the Celtic antagonists as mustache-twirlers, in both films giving them dialogue about how the Romans invaded their homes, killed their sons and raped their daughters, and in both movies there's Roman characters who appear shitty, unscrupulous, and devoid of honor and courage in a way the Celts are never depicted as. Still though, if they make another film around this setting and era maybe it's time for a British protagonist.

The most interesting structural concept at work in The Eagle is that it starts with what's basically an entirely self-contained twenty-minute opening movie, complete with its own conflicts, character arcs, three-act structure, climactic battle, and a cast that's entirely switched out except for Channing Tatum upon completion. Marcus Aquila arrives to command a small Roman outpost in the opening minutes and is met with fairly open distrust at his family background and leadership methods. But respect follows quickly enough when his new fortifications save the outpost from attack, and it comes down to a final battle on the field out front in which Marcus is wounded but survives. Then the movie starts all over again with Marcus recovering from his wounds in south Britain before meeting Esca, with basically no continuity with the opening segment whatsoever except for Marcus having a limp.

I actually find this really interesting in how defiant it is of contemporary narrative structure. Except for a few references to the wound and a scene where Marcus gets surgery, both of which occur before Marcus and Esca head north, the opening twenty minutes could be entirely, cleanly deleted without any impact on the larger narrative whatsoever. It's like the pretitle sequences of some of the older James Bond movies, except even longer. But this standalone opening war sequence is arguably to the movie's benefit, giving it the feel of watching an epic TV miniseries. It makes the story feel bigger and more sprawling.

The Eagle also has perhaps the least female presence of any movie I've seen since Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, despite being based on a novel by the assuredly female Rosemary Sutcliff. There isn't a single credited actress or woman with a line of dialogue in 114 minutes (although there are a few female extras). And you thought 300 was beefcake city! Between that, all the warfare, and the depiction of a simpler time of widespread slavery and social inequality, I'd say this is the greatest film for closeted gay Republicans to come along in years.

While I'm not about to make any argument that The Eagle is an overlooked masterpiece or a film people will revisit for years to come (and I doubt it'll make my top movies of 2011 list), I do think it deserves more credit than it got. It's a hearty, filling mix of hack 'n' slash action, sweeping landscape cinematography, and bromance that easily passes the time. I hope it gets a little more attention on Netflix than it got at the box office.

3 Stars out of 5

Saturday, April 9, 2011

2010 Kraemer Movie Awards Part V — The Best #10-6


The American is one of the most hilarious bait-and-switch jobs pulled on the masses in recent years: a methodically paced, introspective art film that was marketed as a Bourne-style action thriller, resulting in many profoundly unhappy filmgoers. But for those who aren't counting the days until Transformers: Dark of the Moon, there was a lot to love about this moody, fascinating character study. George Clooney plays an assassin hiding out and building a custom sniper rifle in a small Italian village, and his performance is notable for cranking the typical Clooney glib likability down to zero. In fact, it's made clear minutes in that this is not a good guy we're dealing with, which makes his romance with an Italian prostitute played by Violante Placido all the more fascinating to watch unfold. And the most ironic thing about the "omg, no explosions, so boring!" crowd is that this movie's final act is one of the most tense and nerve-racking I've seen in ages, a master class on making a thriller thrilling with little obvious action.


Watching True Grit feels like stepping through time to an era long before Unforgiven (and long, long before Deadwood) when Westerns weren't necessarily deconstructions of the genre or drenched in R-rated violence and could just as easily be breezy adventure movies about heroic lawmen taking down nasty outlaws. Difference being that it's directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, so it's a hell of a lot better than almost all of those movies were. You can tell that the Coens are in love with the genre and having immense fun working with the Old West settings and especially the stylized, vaguely poetic Old West dialogue, and that fun is contagious. The entire cast is superb — Jeff Bridges may not be the iconic American cowboy that John Wayne was, but he's definitely a better actor — but it's little Hailee Steinfeld who walks away with the thing, managing to come across as badass while sharing the screen with armed men three to five times her age.


The Town may have the worst title of the year, but that's handily made up for by what an awesome bit of cops 'n' robbers pulp it is, not as good (and definitely not as subtle or intelligent) as Ben Affleck's first directorial effort Gone Baby Gone, but more than enough to officially declare him an exciting filmmaker to watch. Great car chase, great shootout, great monologue from Jon Hamm that ends with him telling Affleck to "go fuck yourself." A less than 100% convincing love story, but hey, no movie's perfect. It's not on the same level as The Departed or Heat as far as American crime thrillers go, but I'd say it's a solid second tier down. Jeremy Renner is a scary, badass mofo as Affleck's volatile best frenemy.

#7 - TOY STORY 3

The thing I really admire about Toy Story 3 is that it's actually two movies in one. One of those movies, which occupies the middle section of the complete film, is an exciting, self-contained prison break movie for all ages. And I don't mean that it's kind of like a prison break movie if you think about it long enough, I mean that's just flat-out what it is. It's an entry into the prison break subgenre. That by itself sort of kicks ass because I don't think it's what anyone expected from Pixar. I know I sure didn't. And then the second movie, found at the beginning and end of the whole of Toy Story 3, is a very warm, poignant and moving wrapping up of the trilogy as a whole, putting a supremely satisfying bow on the relationship between Andy and his toys. You could watch it even removed from the prison break middle segment and you'd still have one of the year's great films. Rock on, Pixar. Well, once you get done with this year's soulless corporate cash-in, anyway.


Kick-Ass is. Aside from one more film coming up in my top five it's the most pure, giddy, unapologetic fun I had sitting in a movie theater in 2010. It's just so goofy and so violent, and the sociopathic preteen vigilante Hit-Girl in particular is probably the year's most entertaining new movie character (and the brief cultural outrage that sprung up around her was hilarious). There's no debating that the film's first act ambitions of showing what it would actually be like if you put on a costume and went out to fight crime fall to pieces as soon as the eleven-year-old ninjas, rocket launchers, and jetpacks show up, but that doesn't derail Kick-Ass being 2010's best "turn off your brain" pop entertainment. I look forward to seeing what else director Matthew Vaughn can pull off with the superhero genre in X-Men: First Class.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Hall Pass

The Farrelly brothers peaked in the 90s and it's been downhill ever since. Whether that peak was in 1994 with Dumb & Dumber or 1998 with There's Something About Mary can be debated — I'm pretty sure most would go with the former — but speaking as someone who's seen Me, Myself & Irene, Shallow Hal, Stuck on You, and now Hall Pass over the last decade (never got around to The Heartbreak Kid), I feel extremely confident in saying that the last good Farrelly bros film is long behind us. The likes of Judd Apatow and David Wain have taken the ribald, R-rated comedy ball and run with it, while the Farrellys have failed to keep pace with the times.

Hall Pass is about two married guys named Rick and Fred (Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis), both restless after years of monogamy to their wives Maggie and Grace (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate). But when Maggie overhears Rick talking with poker buddies about other women he wants to sleep with and Fred is caught jacking off in one of the movie's few funny scenes (a "caught masturbating" gag almost always tickles my funny bone outside of American Pie straight-to-DVD sequels), the two women take off on vacation, leaving Rick and Fred with the titular hall pass: a free invitation to sleep with other women for a week, no guilt, no questions, no strings attached.

The middle act mostly consists of Rick and Fred getting shot down by women and loafing around bored and anxious waiting for their wives to come back. Despite occasional attempts to salvage the film by Stephen Merchant and J.B. Smoove as two of their buddies, this whole act is spectacularly boring for what's supposed to be a raucous comedy. We get the standard Apatow-era comedic penis shot when Rick visits a gym hot tub and a scene where Fred goes to get a rub and tug at an Asian massage parlor that fizzles out into laugh-free anticlimax, but other than these two scenes there's barely even an attempt at a legitimately clever comedic set piece like the zipper or hair gel bits from Something About Mary. The film even goes to the long-drained well of having the guys get high and then showing them with red eyes being all high as if that's hilarious.

We also occasionally cut to Maggie and Grace during this time. I appreciate the Farrellys at least attempting to keep a female presence in the film, but the problem is they forgot to make these scenes funny at all. Jenna Fischer in particular is horribly underserved by the script, which tries to make her the film's wise character by giving her basically nothing resembling a gag or punchline in 105 minutes. As someone who watches her be funny on The Office most every week this was kind of a bummer.

Then after two acts of relative mellowness, Hall Pass suddenly mutates into a completely different, infinitely broader film for its supposedly comedic climax, which includes a crazed gunman, a car chase, and an explosion of projectile diarrhea suddenly coating a bathroom wall. It's all very "90s wacky." This act also features the obligatory scene where the saucy Australian girl who's been flirting with Rick the whole movie exposes her breasts, and while I don't want to give the impression that I object to exposed breasts, the way they're revealed in this case almost feels like "here's your reward for sitting through our shitty movie."

Owen Wilson is inoffensive but completely nondescript. Fifty other comic actors could have done the role and nothing would have been lost. And I feel kind of bad saying this since he seems like a pleasant enough guy, but Jason Sudeikis isn't unique or funny enough to be anchoring feature films. I don't mind him in roles like Floyd on 30 Rock, but he just doesn't have that big screen charisma. He has another lead role coming up in Horrible Bosses in a few months — this time across from Jason Bateman, which is certainly a step up from Owen Wilson — and I'll give him a second chance, but that's my impression after Hall Pass. Why is he being given lead roles while Bill Hader has yet to rise above bit player in a live-action movie? Hollywood's mining the wrong SNL talent.

Hall Pass is a movie that somehow feels both sleepy and bland yet overly cartoony and like it's trying hard to be filthy while just becoming more quaint and precious with each attempt, like a kindergardener trying to offend you by swearing. With as much good comedy as there is filling the airwaves of television every week there's certainly no reason for anyone to waste their time with it.

1 Star out of 5

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Writing characters substantially smarter than you is tough. Not impossible, mind you — case in point, Aaron Sorkin. Now, I'm not saying Sorkin isn't a bright guy. You don't win an Oscar and a bunch of Emmys for screenwriting without a sharp mind. But on The West Wing he was writing a bunch of characters who were supposed to be Nobel Laureates and Ivy League summa cum laude graduates and leading experts on every topic under the sun and the greatest political geniuses in the country on a weekly basis, none of which Sorkin is, but thanks to the dense, propulsive dialogue I was almost always convinced.

And that brings us to the big problem with Limitless. The movie is about a down-and-out slacker (Bradley Cooper) who comes across a pill called NZT which expands your IQ into, according the film, the four-digit range, allowing you to become fluent in a language or master an instrument or get rich via the stock market within a matter of hours. But his behavior rouses suspicion and he begins making enemies, particularly when some less savory characters discover the truth of NZT and decide they want it for themselves. Relatively generic thriller stuff ensues.

It's a solid enough wish fulfillment fantasy in theory, but to really make such a story pop the writer and director need to be able to sell me on the idea that this pill makes you a goddamn genius beyond our wildest real-world comprehension. And they do! For exactly one scene. The very first scene where Cooper takes the NZT, not believing it's going to do anything, is a delightful little sequence where he starts rattling off obscure legal facts as fast as his mouth can move as not to get evicted, startled and puzzled himself by his brain's new might, quick visual flashbacks showing us the various places all throughout his life he picked up the facts he's now effortlessly reciting and connecting out of the corner of his eye. At this point I was sold and enjoying the hell out of the film.

Unfortunately, that one scene is also the only scene that's clever or well-written in that regard. For the rest of the movie we either come in on the tail end of a conversation where he's confidently quoting some context-free economic or sociopolitical fact that sounds like it was plucked from a textbook, or, more frequently, are told via his nonstop voiceover narration how much he rules and how easy this is for him while we see him doing something like sitting at his computer playing the stock market. I waited patiently for another scene that actually did a good job showing off his superpowered brain through dazzlingly quick-witted conversation, but it never came. Voiceover just lazily stitched in the gaps for the rest of the movie. I don't mind a little narration here and there, but at a certain point it's like holy shit, shut up, dude!

Eventually a gangster who Cooper borrowed some money from gets ahold of his NZT and the movie turns into a more traditional and less interesting chases-and-gunplay thriller with very little personality. This part of the film has not one but multiple scenes where characters take NZT to give them the burst of genius to escape deadly situations, but none of the escapes the writer comes up with are anywhere near clever or impressive enough to convince me that a four-digit IQ was required to pull them off. I will grant that there's a scene near the end of the movie where Cooper has to eat something impressively gross; one of the few moments of genuinely colorful filmmaking and probably the film's best scene after that first NZT high. But a couple of strong scenes does not a strong movie make.

There are other characters besides Bradley Cooper's, including Robert De Niro as a business tycoon guy who Cooper falls in with and Abbie Cornish as Cooper's girlfriend, but I didn't mention any of them because none of them are unique or memorable in the slightest. I doubt I could have told you any of their names by the time I reached my car in the theater parking lot. Anna Friel shows up as a former NZT addict and the movie tries to make it out that she looks like some horrific meth head to show us the dangers of the drug, but all she looks like is an incredibly pretty and healthy girl with no makeup on, so the impact is, uh, diluted.

Limitless ultimately emerges as an incredibly dumb movie about incredibly smart people. I guess you gotta give it the grand prize for irony, if nothing else.

2 Stars out of 5