Friday, November 29, 2013

In A World...: A Review (Review #585)


We all strive to reach the best.  For film reviewers, we aspire to be thought of in the same way Roger Ebert was.  Granted, by now it is highly unlikely any reviewer will earn that notoriety but we all stand in his shadow.  In the world of voice-over announcers, the aspiration is Don La Fontaine, the man whose voice introduced all sorts of films, popularizing the term "In a world..." and became more famous than some of the films he announced.  Lake Bell takes this term and from it springs a film that is more than just a spoof of voice-over artists.  In A World... is a wry comedy that is about the struggles of career and families as they conflict and sometimes come together.

Carol Solomon (writer/director Lake Bell) is slightly adrift.  She struggles as a voice coach specializing in accents.  Her big dream is to do voiceover work for trailers.  However, her gender is a big enough hindrance in the male-dominated industry where deep baritones rule, but she has the added burden of being the daughter of legendary voiceover artist Sam Soto (Fred Melamed).  Sam, like many in the industry, doesn't think a woman will be successful as a trailer voiceover artist, and more to the point, needs her to move to make room for his new girlfriend, Jamie (Alexandra Holden), who is if not exactly Carol's age within the range.

Carol has no choice but to crash at the home of her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband Moe (Rob Corddry).  Things do not appear to go her way until while helping Eva Longoria sound Cockney, her father's protégé Gustav Warner (Ken Marino) is ill with laryngitis and cannot make a voiceover for a child romantic comedy called Welcome to the Jungle Gym.  With nothing to lose, Carol, encouraged by her soundman/platonic friend Louis (Demetri Martin) makes a test.  To everyone's surprise she gets the gig.  This leads to a string of gigs and her stock is rising.

Unaware of Carol's rapid ascendancy, both Sam and Gustav are both dismissive and angry about 'the girl' who 'stole' their jobs.  Despite not being enthusiastic about being with Jamie the girls agree to go to a party at Gustav's swanky digs.  Louis, who stumbles in his efforts to both hide and show his interest in Carol, reluctantly agrees to take Nancy (Stephanie Allynne), the office oddball/slut.  While Louis has to take Nancy home (where he is relieved to not have slept with her), Carol and Gustav (unaware of who she is) do sleep together.

This is a Man's World...

Now comes a really big deal in the trailer voiceover world.  The oft-used phrase, 'in a world...' is going to be used again in a major campaign for an epic 'quadrenology' (a trilogy in four parts), an adaptation of a Young Adult dystopian series called The Amazon Games.  Gustav wants that gig.  Carol wants that gig.  Sam, who had at first removed himself for consideration to make room for his protégé Gustav, discovers that both Carol is 'the girl' who is suddenly making waves in the industry AND the girl Gustav banged and bragged about.  He now decides he will go after a chance to utter La Fontaine's signature line.  They have to all make tapes, infuriating the legendary Sam and worrying Carol who has little time to prepare.  Still, with Louis' help, with whom she has started a gentle romance, she makes her audition tape. 

Everything comes to a head at the Golden Trailer Awards.  Sam will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award with an introduction by Gustav, and while the girls don't want to go, Moe (who has recently reconciled with Dani after her flirtations with a hot Irishman) insists they go.  In a surprise, the new trailer for The Amazon Games (and the voice) is revealed.  Despite Carol's triumph and both Gustav and Sam's disappointment, Carol sees she was used, and we end with both Carol still working with voices, now to help women sound better, and with Louis a firm part of her life.

One of the most pleasant aspects of In A World... is that despite everything, we end up liking everyone.  No one is overtly evil or a clear antagonist.  Even the 'villains' like Sam or Gustav are actually endearing people within their flaws.  Gustav, for example, when approaching Carol comments that he knows he has a 'face for radio', and given that Marino is quite a good-looking man (and knows it), his odd view of himself, coupled with a sincere insecurity over losing jobs to someone else, makes one like him.  Same for Sam, who faces the end of his career and who has a job of reaching out to the daughters he has alienated himself from.  Even in the quasi-adultery Dani commits (understandably, given it's Jason O'Mara who catches her eye and vice-versa) we see people who are human, who make mistakes and are genuinely repentant for their mistakes.  If anything, the fact that there is forgiveness makes them instantly pleasant people.

Melamed is also wonderful as the flawed, egoistic yet ultimately wounded Sam.  In his hurt at losing the gig to A.) a woman, and B.) the daughter he pushed away in favor of his new wife and protégé, we see that he isn't as invulnerable as he'd like to be.  Still, we end up liking him.  In fact, we end up liking everyone.

Another aspect that makes In A World... a treat is in the genuinely sweet romance blossoming between Louis and Carol.  As portrayed by Martin and Bell, they are again, genuinely sweet and endearing people, bumbling into a romance where both have to break through their own inhibitions and timidity to reach out into a beautiful romance.  I was especially impressed by Martin, who brings such a hesitant insecurity to Louis, making him almost innocent.  Yet it is he who pushes Carol to pursue The Amazon Games voiceover, making him the source of strength and encouragement Carol needs.

Bell is equally delightful as Carol.  She doesn't make her an insecure, neurotic woman (though she has her moments).  Instead, Carol is someone who wants to rise above her position, something especially difficult given she has the double burden of being both a woman AND the daughter of a legend.  In her own way, Bell makes a clever commentary on the position of women in Hollywood, not just in the male-dominated world of trailer voiceovers (note that she had to lower her voice in The Amazon Games trailer to be more 'authoritative') but in Hollywood in general.  Despite the progress women have made in many industries and positions of power, there is still a dearth of women in positions of power in the entertainment industry.  There are few women writing for comedy, few women directors, and few women in the business office (examples like Sherry Lansing, Kathryn Bigelow and Shonda Rhimes being few and far between).  The recent brouhaha over the lack of African-American female cast members on Saturday Night Live (and I imagine on the writing staff) serves notice that the subtle commentary Bell offers with In A World... still has bite.

There are a few things left unanswered.  Whatever happened to Nancy?  The 'affair' between Dani and the Irishman (and the flirtation between Moe and the hot British neighbor) is a bit sitcom-like.  However, these are few flaws.

The film is a wry, amusing comedy, not one that has you laughing on the floor but one that makes you break out into smiles at the odd world of its occupants (seeing Gustav make out with Carol's nose is funny) and you end up liking these characters.  There are moments of sweetness (Louis and Carol's long karaoke date) and wit (Welcome to the Jungle Gym...can't wait to see that movie) and cleverness (the whole trailer and especially the tag line for The Amazon Games, "It's A Broad New World" it) along with some unexpected and pleasant cameos (watch for Geena Davis and Cameron Diaz in small roles) make In A World... a great world to be in.

What A "World"...


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Krrish 3: A Review


I was looking to see if 12 Years A Slave had hit my hometown of El Paso, TX. when I came upon a listing for something called Krrish 3.  My curiosity was piqued.  Krrish 3?  What's that, I asked myself.

I did the Lazy Person's Guide to Knowledge (Google to Wikipedia) and read this description of the film at the Fount of All Wisdom: "Krrish 3 is a 2013 Bollywood superhero science-fiction film..." and said, "I'm THERE!"  Who wouldn't want to see a "Bollywood superhero science-fiction film" that's the third part to a series whose first two films (Koi...Mil Gaya or in English I...Found Someone and Krrish) I had neither seen or heard of?  If I am to be correct Krrish 3 is technically the first Bollywood film I've seen since the three films I've seen with Mahesh Babu (Dookudu, The Business Man, and SVCV) are Tollywood films made in Telugu as opposed to Bollywood films made in Hindi.

Semantics, says I. 

Krrish 3 is derivative of other superhero films.  You have a bit of Spider-Man, a heavy helping of the X-Men films, and some Superman/Man of Steel thrown in with some musical numbers (of which no respectable Bollywood film could be without).  Those of us raised on comic book-based films may quibble with the fact that Krrish 3 is almost either shameless or gleeful about taking from their American counterparts, but I freely confess to having enjoyed Krrish 3 (though like all Indian films, finding the length rather punishing).

At least for those of us who never saw Koi...Mil Gaya or Krrish we are given something of a recap.  Rohit Mehra (Hrithik Roshan) was a sweet boy who was 'limited' in intelligence.  Bullied for being slow-witted he prayed to a Hindu deity to make him better.  From this, he has an encounter with Jadoo, an alien with whom he both keeps secret and becomes friends with (thus the charge that it comes close to being the Indian E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial).  This alien allows Rohit to become a brilliant scientist while still being a bit of an innocent.  He later marries and has a son, Krishna (Roshan in a dual role), but Rohit is also abducted and used to try to take over the world.  Krishna, who has superpowers thanks to Papa Rohit, rescues his father and later marries the beautiful Priya (Priyanka Chopra), a journalist.  During his time, Krishna adopts the nom de superhero of Krrish, who has super-strength and can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

So, back to our story.  Krishna finds it hard to keep a job because every time Mumbai is threatened some guy in a black mask and long leather coat has to jump in and save it...and for some reason Krishna keeps disappearing or showing up late for work.  Mrs. Mehra, fully aware of his secret, I figure makes enough for all of them, and Papa Rohit has a good job at the government science & medical lab.  Krishna's secret identity is safe, given that his friend Kripal (Rajpal Yadav) believes HE is Krrish (don't ask how that is possible, just go with it).

Any resemblance to any (fictional) character,
human or mutant, is purely coincidental...
However, there is evil afoot.  The villainous Kaal (Vivek Oberoi), a billionaire wheelchair-bound but with the power to move things with his mind and two functioning fingers, is determined to walk again.  This Lex Luthor/Magneto/Charles Xavier mix with a hint of Davros from Doctor Who even has his own Mystique, Kaya (Kangna Ranaut), a seductive woman who can take the shape of anyone she wants.  She was the first of Kaal's mutants, beings he created in the hopes of unlocking the ability to walk again.  Kaya is fiercely loyal to Kaal, who if nothing else keeps trying by making more mutants.  He has to have them do SOMETHING, so why not be his Minions?

Well, as Krrish saves children from their foolishness and becoming a hero to all Mumbai Kaal hits on a genius idea: he will release a poison on a population, then come up with an antidote for which nations will pay billions.  His test case on Namibia is just for starters.  He has his eyes set on a nation of billions.  Any guess which nation he picks?

The disease kills thousands, putting all of India at risk.  Rohit works to find a cure, then finds something curious...neither he or Krishna are affected.  Could that be a clue?  Wouldn't you know: their blood provides the antidote.  In gratitude, Rohit is praised and Krrish, who delivered it all across Mumbai, has a statue dedicated to him.  Krishna is already in a good mood: Priya is pregnant.  Kaal is furious that his plans have been thwarted, and he zeroes in on the Mehra family.  The men think Priya has lost the baby, but in truth she's been abducted by Kaal and secretly replaced by Kaya.  However, spending time with Rohit and Krishna has her loyalty to Kaal waver, to where she sees the evil she has done and decided to switch sides.

A final confrontation to save both Priya and India takes place across two continents, where people die (including Krrish for a while) but in the end, even after we discover the secret connection between Kaal and Rohit and the former goes on a rampage, all ends well with Priya rescued and the baby safe.  Six months later, they have a son, whom they name Rohit...and who appears to have powers of his own...

One thing that surprised me about Krrish 3 was the lack of musical numbers.  It's not that it didn't have musical numbers or that they (with perhaps one exception) either weren't good or shock of shocks--relevant to the plot.  It's just that there weren't that many.  As someone who has been led to believe that Bollywood films stop every fifteen minutes to allow someone to lip-sync a big, lavish song-and-dance number Krrish 3 has only three songs (four if you count the title song which appears in the closing credits).  For my money, the best number is God Allah Aur Bhagwan, as big and lavish and colorful as one could ask for from a Bollywood film (or a Westerner's idea of said project), coming after the Intermission (yes, Indian films still have intermissions).  It's a positive song, once you look at the translation, which says that God (however you define Him, hence "God, Allah, and Bhagwan") has given us a figure (that being Krrish) to do good.  The production value also has it be bright and beautifully rendered.  The melody itself is also quite pleasant, and the whole thing is delightful.  It's also a credit to the production that Roshan in the dual roles of Rohit and Krishna blend well to where we accept they are two different people.

The first song, Rahgupati Raghav, is similarly at least something that doesn't interfere with the storyflow.  It is sung at Krishna's birthday party where he has just learned he is going to be a father.  That ought to make anyone break out in song.   It's a fun, zippy number which is in the jolly spirit of most of Krrish 3.

It's the third and final number, Dil Tu Hi Bataa, that I felt it could have been cut out.  Granted, I understand the reason for the number (Kaya's wavering feelings over both Krishna and the whole 'being Kaal's henchman' business), but one wonders whether the romanticism of the song undercuts what she is trying to say.  It is the only number that feels a bit forced, but it does give us yet another chance to enjoy the heaving manhood that IS Hrithik Roshan.  Technically, there was only one scene where Roshan was shirtless, but in this last number we got to see him with his shirt open (I guess that's close enough).  It is clear that Roshan worked out furiously to build up a great physique (not unlike, say, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine), so I figure he wanted to show us what he could do.

That, however, might be a bit dismissive towards Roshan as an actor.  He did what all good actors do: transform to the needs of the character.  His whole physicality as the endearing yet bumbling and naïve Rohit were in such contrast to the confident Krrish and the generally upbeat Krishna that one soon forgot that the three were played by one man.  Even the voice changed, and in three roles Roshan did not fail any of them.   Roshan was wonderful in each role (and I confess to having a soft spot for the sweet-natured Rohit).  The final scene of Roshan as Rohit was so moving that it does become emotional.

I think Oberoi was having a hoot as the wildly over-the-top villain: a battle between Oberoi's blue eyes and Roshan's green eyes.  He was so calm and cool as the nefarious Kaal that when he goes all psycho as he lays waste to Mumbai it doesn't quite become comical but let's say it becomes more comic-book.  I also loved Ranaut's Mystique...I mean, Kaya, and her story arc from venomous villain to sympathetic character was believable.  Chopra was beautiful but also effective as the journalist/wife, though getting the 'abducted & held prisoner' story did make her a 'damsel in distress' and less of a real participant for most of the second half.  However, she did have her moment in the end where she stands up to a clearly-deranged Kaal.

Really, Oberoi LOVED being evil!

Another plus in Krrish 3's column is the special effects.  While on occasion you could see that they were a bit below par on the whole they held up against American productions (certainly more believable than anything in After Earth).  I do note that Krrish 3 had great lines.  "The business of fear is the best business," Kaal tells his mutants and his mad-scientists.  A response from Krrish to a young fan also gives basically his life-view: "Age does not matter; courage does."

A minus is the story itself.  Again, it is almost impossible to watch Krrish 3 WITHOUT thinking that it at the very least an 'homage' to comic book films, particularly the X-Men films (right down to the mutants).  This is why I referred to her as the Indian Mystique...the character is simply too similar to believe it was an original creation.  Even the use of the term 'mutants' ought to stir debate.  The comedy bits didn't quite work (why would Kripal honestly think HE was Krrish when there was no evidence to think as such).

On the whole, Krrish 3 I imagine will not be liked by people who think it is a rip-off of the Marvel/DC film library.   However, with some good musical numbers and a good story (though the final battle did seem endless), Krrish 3 is a film I found enjoyable and worth watching, subtitled or not.

And also, it was much better than After Earth or The Big Wedding...

Born 1974
Hugh Better Watch Out...


Monday, November 25, 2013

Pacific Rim: A Review


Pacific Rim is flashy.  It's bright.  It's colorful and has a lot of big bangs and explosions.  It also has piles of clichés, stock characters, and for me, an almost cynical view of its audience.  I watched Pacific Rim and was disappointed: I think it could have tried something more original, created its own world.  However, Guillermo Del Toro opted to use things we've seen before, throw it all together and voila: a potential franchise.

Kaiju (or Giant Beast) have begun attacking Earth, having come from beneath the Earth.  Humanity has put aside all its differences to unite against this common foe, and we now have the Jaeger (the Hunter), large machines that fight on our behalf.  The war continues for some time, to where the Jaegers and their pilots are seen as the new rock stars.  Among said stars are the Becket Brothers, Yancey (Diego Klattenhoff) and Raleigh (Charlie Hunnan, the once and former Christian Grey).  However, the Jaeger Masters suffer a brutal loss while fighting a Kaiju off Alaska.  Disobeying Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), these hotshots do defeat the Kaiju, but Yancey is killed and Raleigh barely survives.

Time marches on, and the decision is made to terminate the Jaeger Program because the Kaijus have consistently grown more powerful after each wave of attacks.  Instead, a giant wall will keep the Kaijus out.  Pentecost has a daring plan: drop a nuclear bomb at the entrance where the Kaijus enter the Pacific Rim and asks the now-construction worker Raleigh to go back to the Jaeger that cost him Yancey and drop the bomb.  Reluctantly, he goes and is taken to Hong Kong, the last vestige of the Jaeger Program.  Raleigh instantly falls afoul of hotshot Aussie Jaeger pilot Chuck Hansen (Rob Kazinsky), though Rob's father, Herc or Hercules (Max Martini) knows Raleigh is good.  Also there is Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a Japanese prodigy with a shattered past. 

Total Shirtless Scenes: 3
The Jaegers operate by tying the minds of their pilots, which also means tapping into every memory they have.  This is why family members appear the best at piloting them.  However, Raleigh has no family, so who to be his co-pilot?  One guess...he'll be turning Japanese.  There are also two scientists, Herman Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Newton "Newt" Geiszler (Charlie Day) are working apparently at odds to come up with other ways to defeat the Kaiju.  Newt is a fan of the monsters, which disgusts Gottlieb.  Newt believes that just as the Jaegers can mind-meld, so can Kaiju.  However, what if Kaiju and Human can share thoughts?  Only one way to find out.

Well, Newt manages to do it, which nearly costs him his life but allows him to gather important information.  Pentecost sends him to contact the mysterious Hannibal Chau, who finds fresh Kaiju remains that Newt can use.  Chau (Ron Perlman) doesn't like Newt's idea...because he knows it will allow the Kaiju to read human minds too (somehow, he knows what comes from this).  The Kaiju do indeed go after Newt, but Chau saves a cost to himself (or is it?).

Mako proves herself a bad choice, getting lost 'chasing the rabbit'.  She relives the horror she witnessed at the hands of the Kaiju, with Raleigh desperate to lead her back.  The center is nearly destroyed because she loses control, which angers Chuck so much he and Raleigh fight.  Still, when yet another attack on Hong Kong leads to the Aussies coming close to death, it is Mako and Raleigh to save them.  Now, with Chuck left an orphan, it is up to Pentecost, who know knows he is a dying man, to go down to the sea and wipe out the Kaiju.

However, Newt and Gottlieb manage to discover that the military plan can bring the end of civilization itself, so all together they come up with a variation on the plan that saves humanity.

I think my disappointment with Pacific Rim is its total unoriginality.  We start with the Jaegers, these massive machines that are piloted by humans to defeat aliens.  I can't shake the idea that Del Toro (who co-wrote the screenplay with Travis Beacham) were at the very least drawing inspiration from Neon Genesis Evangelion, the legendary anime series that has a similar premise.  The only major differences between the two were that the Evangelions were piloted by teens rather than adults...and that the complicated emotional lives of the pilots (Shinji's desperate need for his father the NERV Director Gendo Ikari, the mysterious brooding of fellow pilot Rei Ayanami) were as much part of the story as the attacks. 

Pacific Rim, on the other hand, gives us instead stock characters (emotionally wounded girl, arrogant nemesis, wacky scientist, rebellious but heroic pilot, shouty leader) who do things we expect them to do (come to terms with their loss, rescue others at the last minute, provide comic relief).  The arc of the characters is rote, with nothing in them to have us actually care about what happens to them. 

Battle of the Blonde Beauties...

I could never shake the idea that Pacific Rim was a Part II without knowing anything about Part I.  The long voice-over that tells us the story up to where Raleigh loses his brother could be a movie unto itself.   It's like jumping into something without fully knowing or caring about either the characters or situations. 

Not having seen Sons of Anarchy, I cannot say how good Hunnam is as an American-sounding person, but by the end of Pacific Rim his native British accent was slipping more and more, as if even he no longer cared.  As a side note, for someone who thought Fifty Shades of Grey was beneath him...I thought Elba did a good job with the material he was given, but apart from him everyone didn't bother to try to elevate the material.  Day's comic relief wasn't irritating, but his subplot was distracting and made the film longer. 

A lot of Pacific Rim is simply trying too hard to be 'epic': the performances, the music, the story (such as it was).  It was for me trying too hard to fit into a certain mold of big, loud, action-packed event films but which left me cold.  I grant it had nice things in it: the colors were pretty and it has great special effects.  However, a prime example of what I disliked about Pacific Rim is what is suppose to be a climatic moment: the dropping of the bomb on the Kaiju.  Everything in it is beautiful to look at (the actors, the scenery), but everything is so clichéd: the angry leader sacrificing himself, the cocky rival who accepts at the end the other guy's not so bad, the girl who realizes that she can overcome and what she feels for the hot but somewhat aloof hero. 

Despite everything in it, there is nothing original in Pacific Rim.    

Ultimately, what I wondered at the end of Pacific Rim was, 'Why did it take two people to operate a Jaeger...

...when Shinji Ikari could operate an Evangelion all by his lonesome?'


Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Star Wars Holiday Special Review


The Citizen Kane of Star Wars...

November 17, 1978 is a date that will live in infamy among Star Wars devotees.  I suspect that even the Mandalorian Mercs, who are of the mind that even Episodes I, II, and III are things of beauty, might look askance at The Star Wars Holiday Special.

Actually, I have proof of this.  At the Sun City Sci-Fi Convention 2013, I approached one of these young men dressed as Boba Fett and asked him about the SWHS.  He just hung his head and shook it, a look of pain in his face.  I nearly made him cry.  Here he was, enjoying his outing in cosplay when I come along and ask him THE Question: "What about the Holiday Special?"

The SWHS is held to be one of if not the worst moment in television history, a major debacle that has forever tainted the reputation of the George Lucas-created universe.  The debut and farewell to the SWHS so horrified the world that it has never been rebroadcast or officially released on DVD (apart from a well-regarded animation sequence).  However, on this the 35th Anniversary of The Star Wars Holiday Special (whose name alone shows how misguided the whole thing was) we pause to remember what David Hofstede, author of What Were They Thinking?: The 100 Dumbest Moments in Television History, called "The Worst Two Hours Of Television Ever", earning it the Number 1 Spot on his list.

I don't know if I can give a plot summation because the story is so bizarre and obscenely long, but here goes.  Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) HAS to get back home to Kashyyyk to celebrate Life Day (though exactly WHAT Life Day was or WHY it was important is never explained).  Taking him home is his lifelong friend Han Solo (Harrison Ford).  No easy task given the Empire is after them.

Waiting for them is Chuy's (1) family: his wife Mala, his father Itchy, and his son Lumpy.  I am NOT making those names up: that is how they are introduced in the opening credits.  While they wait for Chewie to show, they do what has to be done: clean the house, throw the trash, make dinner, and entertain themselves by watching what I think was called a 'third-rate Cirque de Soleil show' projected by machine.

Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) calls asking to speak to Han or Chewie, and later on Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is contacted for information about Han and Chewie's whereabouts.  It is only hoped that they can make it in time for Life Day.  Help comes in the way of Saun Dann (Art Carney), a local tradesman who comes bearing gifts, including what appears to be a hairdryer where Itchy can watch what can only be called "Wookie Porn".  It is The Mind Evaporator (a name to be played with), a machine that brings a fantasy woman into his mind, and this woman (Emmy nominee Diahann Carroll)(2), coos such lines as "My voice is for you alone.  I exist for you.  I am in your mind, as you create me.  Oh, YES, I can feel my creation.  I'm getting YOUR message; are you getting mine?" (Boy did we EVER)!  Adding more sexual overtones, she continues, "Oh, OH, we are excited, aren't we?  Just relax, relax.  Now, we can have a good time, can't we?" 

Nothing suggestive in all this, right?

Anyone know where I can get some Wookie Porn?
Putting the coda on what I dub the Kashyyyk Erotique number is when Carroll whispers to us, "I'll tell you a secret.  I find you adorable," something which so excites Itchy that he hits the machine, causing her to repeat "I find you adorable." She goes on to deliver perhaps the most suggestive lines ever to be connected to the Star Wars myth: "I don't need to ask how you find me.  You see, I am your fantasy.  I am your experience, so experience me. I am your pleasure, so enjoy me." 

WOW, and this was a FAMILY-geared special!

Finally, she sings the first of four musical numbers, This Minute Now.

Things are rolling along when Stormtroopers, searching for Han and Chewie, burst into the Baca home.  To placate them, Dann shows one of them a large 3-D-like screen, where one Stormtrooper is entertained by The Jefferson Starship playing Light the Sky on Fire.  That seemed to do the trick for one of them, but the others aren't so easily impressed.  They look around the house, hoping to find Rebel information, so Lumpy does the logical thing: watch a cartoon about his father's exploits against the Empire!

What a sorry debut for an Icon...
This animated sequence is of an adventure Luke, Han, Chewbacca and the droids have against a sinister and mysterious figure, a bounty hunter named Boba Fett.  Fett has laid a trap for them but they manage to outwit the bounty hunter, who swears revenge.

Cartoon over, Lumpy goes up and works on a voice manipulator to outwit the Stormtroopers.  For reasons known only to the Empire regular broadcasts are interrupted and everyone is forced to watch some sort of instructional video from Tatooine, which is now under curfew.  We go to the Mos Eisley Cantina, where bar owner Ackmena (Bea Arthur) politely brushes off the amorous advances of Krelman (Harvey Korman, making his THIRD appearance on the show) (3) when she learns of the curfew.  Having to force all the customers out, she gives everything one last drink on the house and sings them off with Goodnight, But Not Goodbye.  

The voice manipulator works up to a point, but one of the Stormtroopers realizes he was tricked.  Fortunately, Han and Chewie arrive just in time to get rid of said Stormtrooper.  Dann deceives the Imperial Forces by saying the Stormtrooper deserted, and now we get on to the Life Day celebrations.  The Baca clan magically don red robes and all the Wookie-Ookies join together with candles.  Luke, R2-D2 and C-3PO and Leia arrive in time too (with the latter, in the words of Hofstede, looking like she's just arrived from a three-day visit to the Planet Happy Dust), just in time for Leia to "sign" us a song, apparently some sort of Life Day Theme set to the music of the Star Wars theme. 

Side note: if Luke, Leia, and the droids managed to get to the Life Day celebrations rather easily, why didn't Han and Chewbacca just go with them?

End of Special...and End of Nightmare.

At a certain point during the "Kashyyyk Erotique" sequence, I could have sworn that Diahann Carroll actually looked frightened, as if pleading with us, 'Help, I'm trapped in Wookie Porn and I just realized what I'm involved in".   Truth be told, "Diahann Carroll in Wookie Porn" is one of the saner moments of The Star Wars Holiday Special, and that is saying a lot.

Almost everything in The Star Wars Holiday Special was embarrassingly bad, starting with the bizarre idea to focus things on Chewbacca's family.  We start the special with around ten minutes of Wookie dialogue with no subtitles.  Endless grunting from beings we neither know or care about, given idiotic names that almost appear to mock the original.

Then there's the odd mix of Star Wars with variety show performances.  The musical numbers and the acrobatics are more appropriate for The Ed Sullivan Show, and people watching the Star Wars Holiday Special may scratch their heads wondering what Diahann Carroll, Bea Arthur, and most bizarrely The Jefferson Starship were doing in the world of Star Wars.   Putting 'big names' within the Star Wars universe dates the special and takes one out of any hope of putting things within context.  How can you take this seriously when you have Maude/Dorothy Zbornak running the Mos Eisley Cantina? 

The musical numbers didn't work, especially Fisher's truly bizarre closing number.  I keep getting told it's set to the Star Wars theme, but having heard it multiple times I don't even hear a melody, let alone the Star Wars melody.  Fisher's mother, Debbie Reynolds, CAN sing.  Fisher cannot, and the tune is so off-key and perplexing one wonders why no one actually stopped her, or at very least dub her voice.

Where else did the Star Wars Holiday Special go wrong?  Well, let's start with the Wookies, particularly Lumpy.  I imagine the goal was to make them cute, but Lumpy in particular looks frightening (and with simply awful make-up work).  The story (such as it is) is idiotic (Life Day?  What's Life Day, and why should we care?), the comedy routines insufferably bad (Korman, a gifted comic, made his three appearances all awful, and as a digression, why did he have to show up three times?), and some of the scenes were more horrifying than amusing.  Korman, again, is at the center of this.  In his third appearance, he drinks his liquor from a hole at the top of his head!  If I were a child watching this, I would find this more traumatic than hilarious.  His second appearance as a monotone robot was just so boring, and his first as a cross-dressing cooking enthusiast was in terms bizarre and sad.

Long, boring, unfunny bits.  Musical numbers that make no sense (and one of them appearing to come from a 70's idea of a porn musical), bad performances from most of the cast and a plot that wastes two hours damns The Star Wars Holiday Special.  However, in fairness there are two moments that have some redeeming value.

Putting aside the lunacy of the setting, Goodnight, But Not Goodbye is actually a good song.  Arthur makes it a sad lament, showing that the Broadway veteran could handle material so beneath her.  If it were in any other setting, Goodnight, But Not Goodbye would be a more memorable song.

The highlight is the animated sequence that introduces Boba Fett.  While the animation is not the greatest, at least the story HAS something to do with Star Wars (since seeing an old Wookie get sexually aroused is not what I think would make Darth Vader tremble).  IF The Star Wars Holiday Special had been completely about an adventure involving the characters (not a silly story about Wookies in Christmas Pageant robes being serenaded by Princess Leia), it would have launched what could have been more expansive Star Wars mythology.

Obi-Wan Kenobi:
My Hero, My Role Model

This lesson was learned many years later, when the animated Star Wars: Clone Wars and a follow-up, Star Wars: The Clone Wars both added to the overall Star Wars mythology (though their Canon status is a subject for debate) and were well-received by both critics and fans (not to mention having much better animation). 

Now with Disney owning the rights to Star Wars, could we hope that at long last, the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special will be released officially on DVD?  I don't see why not.  Disney if nothing else loves milking its properties for every cent they can earn, so why not give in to temptation and deliver us the Holiday Special.  It's never been released becauce Lucas (a man not averse to making a quick buck from the diminishing returns of his work) is simply too embarrassed to acknowledge its existence.  I have long argued that it should be released, along with a couple of special features: one called What Went Wrong, detailing how something as simple as a Star Wars television program could have veered so wildly out of control, as well as where the cast and crew 'recall' the rise and spectacular fall of The Star Wars Holiday Special.

The second one would be called simply, I'm Sorry, where George Lucas must atone for his sins.  Looking straight in the camera, Lucas simply says, "I'm Sorry."

The best summation for The Star Wars Holiday Special is what Captain Peacock (Frank Thornton) of Are You Being Served? said when Mr. Rumbold (Nicholas Smith) is asked to wear a toupee for a potential commercial, then have his ears taped back to prevent them from sticking out.  "We've seemed to have gone from the grotesque to the bizarre," Peacock intones. 

The Star Wars Holiday Special: From the Grotesque to the Bizarre...


1).  While I know it's "Chewie" when speaking of Chewbacca, I'd thought I'd have a little fun with the old story about how he's really Hispanic.  The story is that his real name is Jesus Baca.  A nickname for Jesus?  Chuy, as in Chuy Baca.

2.) Carroll's nomination came for her work in the series Julia, where she starred in the first television program where the lead African-American character was a professional rather than domestic (playing a widowed nurse).  Carroll became the first African-American to receive an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.  Since her nomination in 1969, the number of African-American women who have won Emmys for Leading Actress in either a Comedy or Drama have Isabelle Sanford as Lead Actress in a Comedy for The Jeffersons.

As of today, not counting Specials, Miniseries, or Guest Actress in a Comedy or Drama, five African-American woman have won for Supporting Actress: Gail Fisher for Mannix, Alfre Woodard for Hill Street Blues, Madge Sinclair for Gabriel's Fire, Mary Alice for I'll Fly Away, and Jackee Harry for 227.  Harry is as of today the only African-American woman to win for a Comedy Series, the rest of the winners being in the Drama category. 

3.) Korman played a four-armed Julia Child-like chef on Wookie TV giving Malla instructions on making something called 'Bantha Surprise' and the robot giving instructions to Lumpy on how to put together the voice manipulator. 

George Lucas' "Lumpy" of Coal for Christmas...

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Internship: A Review


*Author's Note: This review is for the Unrated Version.

I am someone who is not fond of technology.  Yes, I AM writing on a blog, and I have not missed the irony of being generally disdainful of technology while communicating on a technology-based media.  Still, on the whole I have an innate distrust of online things (I still think Twitter, like 3-D, is the Work of The Devil, and I have not accepted either 'friend' or 'text' as verbs).  The Internship, for whatever flaws it has, is really nothing more than a simple 'fish-out-of-water' comedy with two likeable leads, a nefarious villain, and a collection of 'oddballs' that show that a team united is better than individuals separate.

Billy McMahon (Vince Vaughn) and Nick Campbell (Owen Wilson) are lifelong friends who have been successful watch salesmen for many years.  However, they now find themselves unemployed due to this thing called 'the Internet'.  So, in the 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," mindset, Billy gets Nick to dump his unpleasant salesman and go to Google to be interns, where they can battle it out with a group a good twenty years younger than they are.  They are in what Nick calls a 'mental Hunger Games' against people who are old enough to be their children. 

In any case, here they are, these two men in their forties fighting for a few positions against those who are far more technologically versed than they.  They have to join a team, and as I find to be the case, this team is made up of the rejects.  There's Stuart (Dylan O'Brien), the bright but slightly antisocial fellow, there's Yo-Yo (Tobit Raphael) the bright but high-strung person of vague Asian descent, and Neha (Teya Sircar), the nerd girl.  Their fearless leader: Lyle (Josh Brener), insecure nerd who wants to fit in but never does.  He also wants to win and have his group be the hires at Google.

Lyle's team has a big set of challenges on their hands.  First, the young people have a general contempt for Billy and Nick.  Second, they have to go up against the team of the snobbish Graham Hawtrey (Max Minghella), who is determined to win at all costs.  Third, the team faces the stern disapproval of Google executive Mr. Chetty (Aasif Mandvi), who appears to have contempt for our elder statesmen.  As they go through various challenges the kids learn that the old guys have some things they need (particularly, the personal touch) and the boys learn that sometimes, one has to follow their dreams, even if it means having to learn the difference between being online and being "on the line".

I think The Internship is a film that is trying too hard by throwing in one cliché after another.  It isn't that there isn't a good idea within the film's premise of a couple of men trying to adjust to the new high-tech based industry.  We can even accept that the younger characters will be changed by the wisdom of their elders, and that the villain will delight in his villainy.  Everything in The Internship goes according to a straightforward screenwriting template (by Jared Stern and Vaughn, with Vaughn taking story credit).  In other circumstances, I might have forgiven all this and gone along with it all. 

There were certain things that were amusing (such as when our duo appears unaware how online interviews work, or when Billy kept referring to it as 'on the line').  However, it is the fact that the screenplay and director Shawn Levy could never keep the balance between making the leads completely clueless and knowing what is going on.  The best example of this is when Nick and Billy refer to being in a version of The Hunger Games but not be aware of the X-Men.  We also get a strange inconsistency when they know how to get online, but not how to pronounce it, how to get on Google but not apparently how to use it.  It's one thing to make the leads clueless about what kids know, but another to make them selectively clueless.

This inconsistency seeps to the younger set too; when Billy tells Stuart, "I'm your Bill Holden in Stalag 17", he responds, "I really don't get that reference."  However, when Billy is giving an inspirational speech Stuart stops him and asks if he is talking about Flashdance.   Those types of things, where they know certain things but not others, is typical of the dissonance within The Internship, a film that did indeed show the funniest parts in the trailer.      

However, the film's saving grace (if it can be that) is in its performances, where the cast knew at least the characters they were playing and appeared to generally have fun with the idea that it wasn't going to be a high-mark in their careers.   Of particular note are Sircar and particularly O'Brien, who did the best they could with substandard material.  I spent a good amount of time trying to understand why O'Brien looked so familiar to me, and it finally came to me: he is one of the stars of the Teen Wolf television series.  It is nice to see someone play a different character from what he's best known as, as Stuart was cynical and aloof while Stiles is more bumbling and good-natured.  Minghella was also having a hoot playing the evil Graham, using his British accent to full Benedict Cumberbatch effect (sounding as villainous as possible).  Wilson and Vaughn still have great rapport onscreen, but it's just a shame they couldn't do something better.

Sadly, Rose Byrne was wasted as Dana, Nick's love interest in a subplot both familiar and boring. 

I think that The Internship failed, not because of its association with Google (though a strong case can be made that this was a promotional film...I was unaware Google had a Help Line, which I don't think they actually DO have, but there it is).  I think it failed because the screenplay never rose above the stereotypical: the situations, the characters, even the plot.  It didn't even bother answering the questions it asked: Graham wanted to win at all costs, so given that Nick & Billy's team had these two inept bumblers why did he become so focused on them?  Why didn't the other members of his team step in or were they just as cruel as he was? 

Ultimately, I am far more generous than I should be with The Internship for a few reasons.  Vaughn and Wilson work well together.  There were a few good laughs buried within the film.  Other than that, I think I'm being far too kind.

I guess I am in a really generous mood, or accepted that The Internship is a really stupid movie and it didn't try to be anything out than that, with clichéd situations, characters, and plot points.  By no means bright, The Internship is not great art, great entertainment, and certainly nowhere near a great film.  Then again, given that my professors HATE both Google and Wikipedia (or as I call it, the Lazy Person's Guide to Knowledge), maybe I feel like rebelling against them...

One final note: the Unrated Version has a more explicit visit to the strip club which like The Internship itself was hit and miss: some parts good, some parts bad (but I bet many parts were fake).


Friday, November 15, 2013

Beautiful Creatures: A Review


Caster and Bollocks...

Ever since the Twilight series (excuse me, SAGA) ended (mercifully), film producers have done their best to bring a new teen/young adult book series to the screen for a successful franchise.  Percy Jackson and Chronicles of Narnia have stumbled, The Host flat-out bombed, as have Eragon, The Golden Compass, City of Ember, The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, Inkheart, Alex Rider, Cirque du Freak, I Am Number Four, and  The Mortal Instruments.  Only The Hunger Games has managed to be successful both financially and critically (though not with me, who found it all so overrated, even a touch sadistic).  While there are more coming down the pipeline (who needs to read junk by Harper Lee, Jules Verne, or Charles Dickens...we've got Stephanie Meyer!), we now go to Beautiful Creatures, the first of a series of novels by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.  Not having read the books (given I'm not a teenager or a girl), I am unable to say how the film adaption is close or 'divergent' from the source material.  However, seeing the film I cannot help think that if it is near to the book Beautiful Creatures must be a howler of a read, hilarious, almost idiotic; in short, something teen girls would lap up but those who ended puberty long ago would think was just so much trash.

Told in voice-over by Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), we go to the hick Southern town of Gatlin, South Carolina.  We know Gatlin is Hick Central because, as Ethan tells us, there are 12 churches and 1 library (which has fewer books because the town has banned so many of them).  Even worse, the local movie house gets the latest films months after they are released and never spells the titles right (for example, there's the Leonardo DiCaprio film Interception).  THEY DON'T EVEN HAVE A STARBUCKS!  Oh, the humanity!  Still, Ethan is a rebel...he reads!  For pleasure!  Even the 'forbidden books' like Slaughterhouse-Five and Catcher in the Rye.   His mother has died and his father has become a much so we never see him in the entire film.  Only old family friend Amma (Viola Davis), the town librarian, comes to supply them with food.

Because that's what a librarian in a town whose books have to be approved by 12 denominations (and I'm assuming they are not Catholic churches, let alone Jewish synagogues) does with so much free time on her hands. 

In case you didn't know it,
Christians are Clinically Insane!
Ethan has one best friend, fellow quasi-rebel Link (Thomas Mann), who shows his bad side by wearing a hat.  Link's mother, Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson) is the local Christian fanatic, which in a town like Gatlin makes her middle-of-the-road.   Enter into this town Lena Duchannes (pronounced Du-canes) (Alice Englert), niece of local bigwig Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons).  Many in town think Ravenwood is some kind of demonic force, but Ethan sees Lena as something special.  She quotes books and isn't like the other girls in town (who break out in prayer at the drop of a hat).  The girls openly tell the class that Lena is a witch and pray for protection, right after they object to reading To Kill A Mockingbird (for the first time in decades, apparently), because their church thinks it's evil.

Where do they worship: the Church of the Poisoned Mind?
Well, we find that Lena does indeed have some kind of power.  Lena discloses that she is a Caster, a witch who at 16 will have to be claimed either by The Light or The Dark.  They have no choice in the matter, unlike the men who can switch sides. 

Let's put aside the sexism in all that.

Ethan, however, will not be dissuaded: he has fallen in love with Lena, and despite being a mortal, she with him.  This will cause problems because Casters cannot love Mortals.  Complicating matters (yes, there are more complications), Ethan and Lena may be connected to an ancient Caster curse.  Throwing in more things (seriously) is the wicked sister Ridley (Emmy Rossum), who wants Lena to go to the Dark, as does their mother Sarafine (identity too idiot to believe).  With a little help from Amma (who is also the Caster Librarian) and her family, Lena goes to the ceremony and in the end, the lovers are united, though not without some upcoming troubles.

I cannot help think that when director Richard LaGravenese was adapting the book he must have either decided that it wasn't worth the effort to try to make sense of any of this, but also decided he wasn't going to send it up either.  Instead, we get an odd mix of the ridiculous and the romantic, where a dozen bad decisions offset one or two good ones.

For example, the fact that Gatlin was some sort of backwater could have been handled better than by having the local theater misspell titles that the poster could have verified.  That already was bad enough, but the portrayal of the local Christian community is downright bigoted;  there is no other way of putting it.  If it were any other group (Jewish, Islamic, Sikh, Hindu), there would have been a great outcry due to the cartoonish imagery of anti-intellectual, unhinged, ignorant characters.

Take a gander at this doozy of dialogue spoken by Mrs. Lincoln, "God our Creator will condemn you (Macon) to hellfire along with terrorists, atheists, homosexuals, Democrats, liberals, Socialists, Greenpeace, and all the other unnatural abominations."  Seriously, WHO TALKS LIKE THIS?  Certainly no Christian I know...some who ARE Democrats, liberals, and Socialists. 

Not sure about the homosexual...

In any case, this is such a hilarious line, not just because it goes so wildly over-the-top with the venom, but also with the lousy acting by so many in the cast.  The two 'Christian' girls just said the lines (I didn't bother to learn their names).  We already touched on Emma Thompson, who judging by this has never actually met a functioning Christian is she thinks they do nothing but scream and pray at all hours of the day.  She was a caricature OF a caricature.  Irons either gave a Southern accent the best try he could or decided he just needed some money, because he sounded as Southern as Maurice Chevalier.  Mann, an actor I genuinely like, had very little to do, and his character's actions lead to uncomfortable questions of logic (like if Ridley can seduce him so easily, why not do that with Ethan to get Lena to the Dark?). 

However, there were some good performances.  Rossum was delightful as the deliciously wicked Ridley.  Similarly, both Ehrenreich and Englert worked well as the star-crossed lovers (and much better than the material, which was just unbearably stupid).  There were even some good quips, like when Amma tells the lovers that the Caster Library was once in Washington, D.C. until Nancy Reagan chased them away.  The First Lady was the only Mortal the Casters were ever afraid of. 

That WAS funny.

However, they were done in by some lousy and muddled storylines where things happen and people appear for no real purpose.  There is for example the character of the Ravenwood brother Larkin (Kyle Gallner), who pops in twice but somehow was vital to the 'twist' at the end of Beautiful Creatures.  It is not fair to the non-reader to have a lot hinge on a character whom we are barely introduced to.

Even worse, what I imagine in the book was a tense and dramatic moment turns into something wildly hilarious.  The dinner scene where Ridley and Lena have it out will be remembered as one of the best unintentionally hilarious moment of 2013.  The family is dressed like they came from a Hunger Games cosplay, when the two witches cause the table to start spinning.  Some of the family continue eating while others demand they stop the table, while poor Ethan is kept there, forced into silence by Ridley, having to witness this wild scene.  I was howling with laughter at all this, with it being more comical than anything. 

Watching Beautiful Creatures, we see yet another fumble to capitalize on what apparently is a second-rate supernatural romance series and turn it into a franchise.  I would be amazed if we get more adaptations, though who knows: we may see the second part of Beautiful Caterers...


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Now You See Me: A Review (Review #580)


Magic involves the suspension of disbelief.  We KNOW what we are watching is not possible, but we ignore the logic of it all and just roll with it.  Now You See Me comes close to being an entertaining heist picture with twists and turns that work and can be entertaining.  I was willing to suspend disbelief throughout much of Now You See Me, but it wasn't until we got to the third act that we got twists that were both predictable and stupid that the film just collapsed for me.

Well, at least for the most part it held up.

We meet four different types of illusionists: street card shark J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), disgraced hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), escape artist and Atlas' former assistant Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), and Uri Geller-like magician Jack Wilder (Dave Franco).  They are all secretly contacted by a mysterious figure via four tarot cards: Lover, High Priestess, Hermit, and Death respectively.  They are brought together to begin a long-term master plan.

We go to a year later.  They are headliners at the MGM Grand, billed as The Four Horsemen.  At one particular show they will perform a daring magic act: they will teleport a man from Vegas to Paris to rob a bank.  This they do in front of their patron, billionaire Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), as well as magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), the latter surreptitiously videotaping the show.  The Four Horsemen appear to do the impossible, for at the time of the act, as euros rain down on the audience, the bank is indeed robbed.

This attracts the attention of both FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and INTERPOL rookie Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent).  Dylan hates magicians, and as a result, he is extremely displeased to be assigned a case involving "David Copperfield and Friends" and saddled with this rookie.  However, because there is no actual evidence against the Four Horsemen tying them to the robbery, they have to be released.  Bradley suggests that there is a solution to the crime, but he won't give up anything.  He does provide Rhodes with a vital clue, the story of Lionel Shrike, who disappeared after Bradley exposed his tricks and has not been seen since.  They might be tied in to a secret society called The Eye.
There's only one way to find out: at their next performance in New Orleans.  The Four Horsemen perform for a group that has one thing in common: their insurance failed to cover their losses from Hurricane Katrina, but somehow they find their accounts have all earned money...while Tressler's account has shrunk by the same amount.  Now an enraged Tressler and infuriated Rhodes attempt to get The Four Horsemen, but are foiled by their tricks. 
One last chance to grab them in what is touted as their 'farewell' performance in New York.  Soon the pieces come together, tying so many threads in more and more ludicrous manners.  I can't reveal all, but Lionel Shrike is involved somehow, with the actual brains of the operation being both predictable and unbelievable.
While I was more than willing to go along with Now You See Me's plot, when we get to the wild police chase I figured out what was going to happen.  It was the only logical solution, but herein lies one of the big problems in Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin, and Edward Ricourt's screenplay (from a story by Yakin and Ricourt).  In order to believe the story we have to accept that too many things that rely on precise planning would go exactly as planned.  We start with the idea that these four would end up within a year as Vegas headliners.   At first, things were explained (such as the Paris robbery) in a way that make sense.  It isn't until what is suppose to be the climatic chase that I thought, 'this wouldn't work'.  Not only did I know a character would not be dead, but I also knew that for this plan (apparently twenty years in the planning) to work, EVERYTHING had to go right. 
That is simply too unbelievable to accept because it leaves absolutely no room for error, and even in the most expertly planned and executed plan something is bound to go wrong.  If the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Zero Dark Thirty had a couple of errors, how can we expect THIS plan to work without one mistake.  Even that perhaps could be accepted if you didn't think about it too much.  It is when we find the identity of the mastermind that I thought, 'well, this person is the one who is suppose to give us the 'big twist' but not only did we not get any indication of this but it just is really too stupid to accept'.
Still, when it comes down to it Now You See Me has a great visual style and some pretty good performances.  Louis Leterrier creates a strong visuals to where the film is impressive to look at.  All the magic acts, while I imagine not possible in real life (in the MGM Grand scene, a theater that large would make appreciating the show hard to appreciate, even with jumbo screens).  We also got strong performances, particularly from Dave Franco as the youngest member of the Four Horsemen still trying to show he can play with the big boys.  Franco's done well in coming out of his brother James' shadow.  Ruffalo, who is one of my favorite actors, got saddled with a one-note character but to his credit he does what he can with it and is always fascinating to watch.  In the smaller roles both Freeman and Caine showed they can handle thinly drawn characters and make them worth our time.

The only (very) sour note is Eisenberg, someone who's career is a complete mystery to me.  In every film (even The Social Network) he plays the same character: the smarmy, fast-talking jerk.  At one point Hadley says that Atlas' behavior is "not phony arrogance", and the only thing I thought was that that's true: it's Eisenberg's usual modus operandi.  He is always the same in every film, and I find him endlessly grating in his persona of the overly confident person who talks really fast but has nothing to back up his ego or anything sensible to say. 

There were also other elements that didn't work apart from the fact that everything had to go split-second right (thought that is a BIG part of what went wrong with Now You See Me).  We get the requisite romance between Dray and Rhodes which we didn't really need, and conversely while we are told there was a romance between Hedley and Atlas it isn't part of the story at all.  The film also doesn't give the Four Horsemen or Rhodes or really any of the characters much of a backstory.

If it weren't for the fact that the story simply becomes too ridiculous at the end Now You See Me might have been really good and succeeded in what it was trying to do.  However, some good performances and visuals lift it up much more than it should have.  On the whole, it comes close to pulling off its tricks, but in the end Now You See Me is a rabbit short.  


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Big Wedding: A Review


The Big Fiasco...

The stories are all true: The Big Wedding is among the worst movies ever made.  We are not just talking about 2013 (though all things being fair, it gives After Earth a strong run for its money as the worst film of 2013).  We are talking about ALL TIME.  Seriously, one cannot prepare him/herself for the sheer awfulness of The Big Wedding, a horrendous film that hits the trifecta of bigotry: it's sexist, racist, and homophobic, and even throws in anti-Catholic to boot.  Worse, it just is not funny.  The Big Wedding is a film that is simply so awful that it would not be worth watching even if every other film ever made were destroyed and The Big Wedding were the last film left in existence.

Don (Robert DeNiro) and Ellie (Diane Keaton) have been divorced for many years.  Before their divorce they had three children: eldest daughter Lyla (Katherine Heigl), son Jared (Topher Grace), and their adopted son from Colombia, Alejandro (Ben Barnes, who happens to be British, with no known Hispanic connections I should add).  Don has shacked up with Ellie's best friend Bebe (Susan Sarandon), but has steadfastly refused to marry her.

Speaking of marriage, Alejandro...from engaged to Missy (Amanda Seyfried), the WASP of All WASPS.  Her parents Muffin and Barry O'Connor (Christine Ebersole and David Rasche) are not happy that their little girl is going to marry this 'ethnic' who will give them mixed-brown children.  Still, things could be worse: like Lyla separating from her husband and her doctor brother Jared still a 29-year-old virgin waiting for his 'one true love' (and having all the female staff in heat).

Well, Father Monighan (Robin Williams) is not pleased that these two may not raise their kids in The One True Faith, but there are other problems.  Alejandro...from Colombia...has maintained contact with his birth mother, Madonna (Patricia Rae) and the devoutly Catholic Mamma would not approve of his adoptive parents' divorce or a couple living in sin.  Therefore, Alejandro...from Colombia...asks everyone to pretend Don and Ellie are still married to please this woman. 

And like all rational adults, they not only agree but don't object much when this means two people who don't like each other very much to sleep together and throw out the woman who raised him.  Hilarity ensues.

Mamma arrives for the wedding, with her daughter Nuria (Ana Ayora), who like all Latin women is eager to get laid.  Guess who she sets her eyes on?

On that fateful weekend, we find out secrets, who loves whom, and all end well...well, it actually just ends, so that is about the only good thing in The Big Wedding.

Yeah, we all have Oscars, but
that don't pay the bills...
There is ugly, and then there is The Big Wedding ugly.  I don't think a movie could have been crafted any worse than this, a film that plays on the worst aspects of each actor's worst tendencies.  There's DeNiro's mugging for the camera, Keaton's flummoxed mannerisms, Williams' syrupy comic relief.  Even the secondary characters fall into bad forms: Heigl and Seyfried should handle second-rate rom-com, but even they appear lost or worse, irrelevant to the story.

Whole aspect of writer/director Justin Zackham's screenplay appear for no reason and disappear for no reason.  The O'Connor family under investigation for fraud?  While we expect everyone save Madonna and Nuria to know, it's mentioned but nothing comes from it.  It serves no purpose except for Missy to yell at them.  The idea that the O'Connors are bigots is enhanced by simple bouts of idiocy.  Muffin (already a stupid name) comments about how disappointed they were that Alejandro and Missy weren't going to Venice for their honeymoon, especially since according to Muffin, "Venice is Alejandro's native language."  Maybe Zackham thought it sounded funny, but man is that just one of the awful lines and situations in the film.

I also have heard of the Madonna/Whore Complex, but this may be the first time someone has literally tried to show it with a puritanical character named Madonna and a spicy Latina who strips off and skinny dips within minutes of meeting the virgin (whose reasons for remaining so are so vague they exist only for plot).  Here, we see another simply ugly aspect of The Big Wedding: the sheer bigotry within it.

You have the stereotype of the hot Latin woman who only wants sex.  Nuria is perfectly at ease giving Jared a handjob at the Rehearsal Dinner.  I know that's how MY Mexican mother got my father.  I cannot express just how ugly that was (though nowhere near as evil as having a BRITISH guy play a Columbian.  Seriously, they could have at least gotten someone like Freddie Prinze, Jr.: at least he part Puerto Rican.  Hiring a European play a Hispanic when there are good Hispanic actors, even for something as overtly lousy as The Big Wedding is another slap in the face of all Hispanics).

Let's just wrap all this up.  All the performances are awful bar none.  The story is hopelessly predictable.  We never get to know even these broad caricatures of rich people.  Their motivations and actions are nonsensical (Don and Ellie do have sex, but the repercussions of all this are never answered, we learn Ellie had an affair with Barry and Muffin goes for muffins...if you catch my drift).  The music sounds like something out of a bad sitcom (which The Big Wedding basically plays as) and honestly, why would these three adults placate their spoiled and selfish son in this manner?  If I had an adopted son whose birth mother did not approve of my divorce and new relationship, I'd say, 'tough cookies'.  Grow up, get a pair, not 'yes, son, of course I'll play along with someone I'll never see again to please her old-world ideas'.

More than anything, the casting of BRITISH Ben Barnes as a Columbian (even with his tan and hints of an accent) should indicate that The Big Wedding has nothing but contempt for its audience.  Allow me to share some of my notes while watching:

Bigoted, insulting to intelligence, awful.
Insulting to Catholics (I was angry, and I'm not Catholic)
This is all truly atrocious and feels longer than its 90 minutes running time.

The Big Wedding is simply a gigantic pile of crap that comes in a very pretty package, but don't be fooled.  Even at 90 minutes life is simply too short to suffer through this monstrous garbage.  I never hated a movie after watching as much as The Big Wedding

Columbian, British, Potato, Potato...
An accent's an accent, right?

ANY film that makes one almost WANT to watch After Earth again is a film that will live in infamy.


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

This Is The End: A Review


I think it's a safe bet that, with the possible exception of James Franco, none of the main cast of This Is The End are likely candidates for a Kennedy Center Honors (and Franco's potential selection is still dubious).  I can argue about the logic of This Is The End (and I will later on), but what I draw from the film is that these guys, friends who've worked together for more than twenty years in many and various ways, know enough about their public personas to feel comfortable enough spoofing themselves.  They are not taking any of this seriously, and neither should we, but in a good way.

To give an accurate description of the plot, we have to remember that they are playing versions of themselves, so much so that they didn't even bother changing their names.  Thus, we have Jay (Jay Baruchel), who comes to Los Angeles from New York to visit his friend Seth (Seth Rogen).  Both friends are happy to see each other again, and they do what they've done many times before: get very high and reminisce about good times.  Seth wants to go to James Franco's house for a party, and while Jay is extremely reluctant to go he agrees.

Jay and Seth arrive and James (James Franco) is happy to see them there (or at least as much as Franco can see with his narrow eyes).  Among the party guests are Craig Robinson and Jonah Hill, whom Jay has a strong hatred for despite Jonah being an extremely nice person.  Jay does his best to mix, but still finds the whole Hollywood world Seth has gleefully entered into a bad mix.  He convinces Seth to go get some snacks within walking distance from Franco's massive mansion.

As they go down to a nearby convenience store, the whole Earth opens up and all Hell breaks loose...quite literally.  Jay sees people taken up to Heaven through a blue light, and the terrified Seth and Jay rush to Franco's mansion to find...the party still going on.  A little later, this Apocalypse finally gets to Franco's, where among the guests consumed by the Earth are Rihanna, David Krumholtz, Michael Cera, and Aziz Ansari.

Soon the group of survivors attempt to both sort out what is happening and ride out the storm until rescue arrives.  After all, as Franco surmises, they're movie stars, and they are the first to be rescued.  They have a good amount of supplies, and the group of Baruchel, Franco, Hill, Robinson, and Rogen decide they can get through this. 

Enter Danny McBride, who surreptitiously had crashed Franco's party and in one feel swoop took most of their food supply, completely unaware of what had happened.  Dismissive of everything at first, it isn't until people are killed in front of them and Emma Watson comes for help that they realize the world is probably coming to an end.

Emma, who overhears a strange conversation about the 'rapey' vibe in the house with her presence, forces them to give up their food and water when she flees.  The guys are still confused as to what is actually going on, but only Jay is aware that they are in the Biblical End of Days.  This is quickly dismissed by everyone else, but a little ecstasy lightens the mood.

The mood darkens when McBride continues his boorish behavior, drinking more water than is allotted.  After he tries to kill them with Franco's prop gun from Flyboys, he is forced out into the Apocalypse.   And the Apocalypse it is, as one of them becomes possessed by Satan after being raped by the Lord of Darkness, forcing an exorcism. 

Eventually, the fellows one by one find that they can be spirited away, well, most of them anyway.  McBride has turned cannibal, and made Channing Tatum his bitch.  In the end, we find that with one good act, most of our dim-witted heroes can enter Paradise, where they earn their halos and even get anything they want: a little weed, a little Backstreet Boys...

Despite myself, I found myself laughing at how this group can spoof both themselves and the situation, generally a riff on 'end of the world' films with a group of survivors attempt to keep the human race going.  These versions of the actors aren't concerned with humanity's survival, just on how this situation will impact their lifestyle.  The idea that this group's main interests are pot-smoking and their careers (a funny and cheap sequel to Pineapple Express being a highlight, even for someone like me who never saw Pineapple Express) while the world is collapsing indicates that if anything, these guys know how they are perceived.

There are a few in-jokes among them, such as when Jay and Seth comment when Franco tells them that his house was like coming to him, they had 'come inside James Franco' (a subtle joke on Franco's ambiguous sexual orientation).  There are also quips about some of the bad movies they've made (such as Your Highness and The Green Hornet), but beyond that This Is The End also ridicules some of the standards of 'end of the world' films, like the video confessions and the efforts to ride out the storm.

Even the screenplay by Rogen and his longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg has moments of wit (a rarity for these guys, granted, but even a broken clock...).  When attempting to explain the concept of the Trinity, I think Franco says the Trinity is like Neapolitan ice cream.  It's not as good as St. Patrick using the shamrock to show how three figures can be One, but it works within the nutty confines of This Is the End.  Other moments, like when the guys use a head to accidentally play soccer, are also hilarious.  I laughed despite myself.

Pretty soon one forgets we are watching loose versions of the actors (or their personas) and start to see them as characters in a movie.  It is debatable whether they are really playing versions or playing themselves (somehow, I still can't bring myself to think of Danny McBride as a comedic genius), but again, I don't know just how serious we're suppose to take any of this, particularly the reason how these dimwits manage to get into Heaven.

The thinking is that they just had to do one good thing to receive the Lord's favor.  Sometimes they came close only to fail at the very last moment, and some, like McBride, fully embrace the evil, but I would tell these guys that just 'being nice' won't get you to Heaven.  Also, Heaven is not a place to indulge all your hedonistic pleasures.  Still, I have to emphasize how one can't take any of this seriously.  They don't, and if we don't we can laugh at their embrace of both the premise and their personas.

Finally, as much as Michael Cera has been lauded for making 'Michael Cera' this cocaine-snorting sex fiend, I found that a bit too self-conscious.

I laughed at This Is the End, and while it's not the smartest film or even the funniest film, it does what it set out to do: give me laughs.  I also confess getting a delight in seeing Aziz Ansari (another 'comedic genius') go down to the pits of Hades...