Friday, June 14, 2013

This Is The End: It's The End Of The World And I Feel Fine

From 2005 to the most recent Bridesmaids, Judd Apatow's frat pack of friends/actors have ruled the comedy screen.  They've successfully redefined the comedy genre by not only providing some of the crudest, filthiest, and funniest movies of the last eight or so years, but these movies are also smart, charming, full or heart, and overall (save for a select few) great films.  It all began with The 40-Year Old Virgin which taught Hollywood that a movie could be crass as hell, but still have a ton of heart.  It could appeal to both men and women alike.  Knocked Up only served to back that argument and solidify, not just Judd Apatow as a comedy staple, but introduce us to some of the most key players in comedies to come.  We met Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jason Segal, Jay Baruchel, and were re-introduced to Paul Rudd, Michael Cera, as well as cementing James Franco as a household comedic name.  For the first few years, these players could do no wrong in the eyes of viewers.  Some of the best comedies of all time have come out of the last few years (The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express, Bridesmaids).  But, just as all comedy does, people got a little tired of the same schtick.  While the movies themselves were far better than most comedies released at the time, audiences were looking for something new.  Apatow films, while still bankable by name alone, weren't producing the best of films (Get Him To The Greek, Funny People, Year One).

Then, the frat pack split up.  Seth Rogen did a "superhero" movie and a shitty Hollywood mom-com with Barbara Streisand.  Jonah Hill lost weight and went a more serious route.  James Franco went back to being a douche.  Segal focused more on his television show.  Paul Rudd is really the only one mass producing forgettable movies one after another.  So, a reunion of the guys is exactly what all of us were rooting for.  This Is The End, based off a fake trailer by Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel called Jay and Seth Versus The Apocalypse.  It stars everyone you can think of that you've ever seen in an Apatow related film.  The vague hint of a plot is this: Jay has come to town to spend the weekend at Seth's place.  Seth suggests they go to Franco's house for a big housewarming party.  There, Jay is uncomfortable around all the celebs because he's never really adapted to the life of a celebrity.  During the party, naturally, the apocalypse happens.  Most everyone is killed during it save for Seth, Jay, Jonah, Franco, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride.  The six of them must band together to stay alive barricaded in Franco's house.  Of course, all does not go to plan.  Danny McBride unknowingly cooks a majority of the food, their water supply is limited, there are demonous creatures on the outside of the house, they get robbed by Emma Watson, etc.

What's great about the film is that these guys get to play themselves.  It's funny to hear celebrities talk about being celebrities as if they were real people.  It's hilarious to hear them rag on one another for some of the film choices they've made.  It's perfect to hear Danny McBride chastise Jonah Hill's acting ability since he's supposed to be an Academy Award nominated person.  But, what works the best besides the meta-plot are the little [fake] nuances each character is given.  On the surface they're themselves, but deep down some of the actions displayed are hilarious movie characters with quirks that make everything click.  Jay hates Jonah Hill for apparently no reason, Jonah acts like America's sweetheart, but underneath is an asshole.  Franco has some deep man-love for Rogen because of their experiences filming Pineapple Express.  Craig Robinson acts tough, but underneath is a kitten.  And Danny McBride acts like the self-centered piece of shit everyone expects he is in real life and he probably gets the most laughs.  But, the scene stealer of the movie is Michael Cera.  He's not in it long (spoiler: he doesn't survive the apocalypse), but the scenes he's in, he's a misogynistic, coke-snorting, drunk animal.  It's such the opposite of what you'd expect out of Michael Cera, you'll laugh so hard you'll cry.

The end of the world is also the perfect backdrop for a reunion film for these guys.  It gives them plenty of conflict that isn't forced.  I mean, it's the end of the world.  You don't really have to think too hard while writing the film about what conflicts to introduce to the six friends.  There's conflict all around.  It's how these guys react to these situations as well as try to solve them is where the best moments of comedy are found, which is nice considering there isn't much of a plot.  But, there doesn't need to be.  It's famous people fighting to stay alive amidst the end of the world.  And while there's hardly a female face to be found in the film, there's still plenty of heart.  There's man-love aplenty. 

It's also refreshing to see a spin on the post-apocalyptic film genre by spinning it into a comedy.  And it's funny.  It's really, really funny.  Not all the jokes hit, and the ones that don't are quite obvious and awkward, but a majority of them do.  There's also a couple of instances of incredibly hilarious cameos.  It's definitely not the year of the comedy this year, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a film funnier all year.  If you've loved any of the Apatow films of the past, this is one film that's worth your dollars.


The Purge: Resist The Urge To Purge

I love junky horror movies.  Films like Saw or The Collection or even to an extent Evil Dead (though I would hardly call it junky), it's fun to see helpless teenagers in bad situations being gutted and fried and killed in the most gruesomely original ways possible without so much as providing a single scare.  On the other hand, I love scary movies.  Movies like The Descent, Insidious, and Paranormal Activity (just the first one).  So, when I see a trailer for a horror movie coming out, it's nice to see it defined for what type of "horror" being provided.  When I saw the trailer for The Purge, I couldn't make up my mind.  At first it looked like that fun kind of junky horror movie not to be taken seriously that I really enjoy.  But, as it went on it looked like that creepy as balls, home invasion, terrifying type of scary movie that I love.  So, either way I was excited to see it.  Not to mention one of the most original plots I've heard for a horror movie in recent memory.

The Purge is set ten years in the future when crime has almost all but dissipated and unemployment is down to less than one percent.  This is all due to The Purge, a 12-hour period once a year when all crime, including murder, is legal.  All emergency services are suspended for the period during the Purge when human beings can take out their wrath on those who are less fortunate (the poor) in order to live in peace the rest of the year.  Already, I'm like: what an awesome premise for a film!  This is like a Twilight Zone episode with more blood.  Except, it's not.  And I truly think The Twilight Zone would've killed it with a premise this rich. But, the movie simply failed in almost every facet possible save for the premise itself.

I'm going to break down everything that went wrong with the movie, because it was all based on simple wrong decisions.  First, the right decision: setting up a premise as fundamentally awesome as the 12-hour Purge to a central location of a single family and what happens when shit goes awry.  That was smart.  While some of us would've loved to have seen a larger, city-wide purging, it was essentially a better decision to centralize it to one house and one family.  Another right decision: family patriarch James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) has just risen to the top of his company selling everyone in his upper class neighborhood security systems designed specifally to keep everyone safe during The Purge.  Due to his success, he's been able to add a second wing to his house making it the biggest house in the neighborhood (which also leads to a bit of envy amongst neighbors).  This is still part of the right decisions.  His son, a naive youngster who doesn't have the adult experience necessary to understand the necessity of the Purge itself.  So, when the Purge begins, and the house is locked down, and the family assumes they're safe... young Charlie Sandin helps a man in dire straits running down the street screaming for help.  He lifts the security system to let the man in and hide, unknowingly putting his family in harm's way.  This is all still good stuff leading the story down a very exciting and nerve-wracking path.

This is when everything goes to complete Hell.  These are when the utterly wrong decisions are made by writer/director James DeMonaco.  There's a backstory that James' daughter is dating a much older man, to which he does not approve of.  He bans her from seeing him, so before the Purge begins, he sneaks into her room, is locked in the house with the family, pulls a gun on papa Sandin, tries to kill him, and is killed by big daddy.  So, where does lil daughter Sandin go after this?  Who the fuck knows!  She disappears for a good twenty minutes!  Why?  I'm guessing because the sophistication of writing emotional tragedy was too much for DeMonaco.  So, she's gone.  Then, helpless vagrant is let in by lil' brother Sandin, and he goes... um... hiding too.  Yeah, he disappears.  Obviously, mama and papa Sandin are worried about this man until a group of fifteen or so masked killers show up at the door demanding the Sandins release the vagrant due to their right to Purge.  They claim they have heavy artillery and machinery that will crack their security system and if they don't release the vagrant by the time it arrives, they will be killed as well.  Now they've got a real problem on their hands.  So, naturally, lil' daughter Sandin would come out of hiding to find mom and dad, right?  Nope.  She's gone still.  No reason behind it.

Okay, so now the Sandins have a real problem on their hands.  They gotta get this dude out of their house or they will be surely killed.  Papa Sandin knows this and snaps immediately into action getting his family together to find the vagrant, capture him, and give him up in order to save his kin.  Well, after much searching, and the random unexplained return of the daughter, they finally catch him, tie him up and are about to wheel him out when... the rest of the family has a change of heart.  They witness the animalistic instincts big papi has exhibited and they are now more afraid of him than they are the intruders outside.  They chastise him for giving up an innocent soul to be killed and leave him be to do the deed himself.  Sandin has a great line when the vagrant claims he doesn't want to die, he says, "you're going to die tonight.  You can either die like a man and save the family, or die like a coward and get everyone killed."  This makes sense to me!  I would sacrifice ANYONE to save my family, no matter who they were.  This is the correct choice.  Unfortunately, that's as far as that right choice goes.  Guilt tripped, Daddy Sandin develops some sort of retarded conscience, and decides to let the guy live and "fight" the armed intruders.  So, instead of putting his family in the clear, he decides to put them in an impossible situation and directly in harm's way.

The cavalry arrives for the intruders which includes a large chain that they attach to the steel security walls and pull them down with ease.  That was the plan to breach this impeccable security system.  What?!  So, the intruders arrive, guns in tote, and start to hunt everyone in the house.  Even after all the tomfoolery that has unfolded in the house, I was excited for this part.  The deaths of the intruders had to be exciting, right?  Save for one scene in the family's game room involving an axe, the rest of the deaths are all gunshot related and boring.  There are countless amounts of moments where it looks like a family member has met their end and someone else comes up behind the killer and blasts them from behind.  This took me out of every moment knowing that no one in the house was in any real danger because there'd always be someone behind to save the day.  In the end, more dumb spoiler-ish stuff happens and the movie ends on a less than satisfactory note.

The whole movie could've been saved if the right decisions had been made.  The right decision to create the best conflict would've been for the family to ultimately decide to send the vagrant out to be killed, follow through with it, then have the intruders change their own minds and decide to kill the family anyway.  But, these gutless Sandins, all of whom deserved to die and all of whom, save for Big Daddy D, I was hoping would be offed, were just too emotional for the liking of any audience.  I wanted to love this movie so much.  Even towards the end when I knew EXACTLY what was going to happen, step-by-step, I wanted it to be something it wasn't.  It just so happened to wind up being a movie that was plagued by wrong decisions and multiple missteps.


The Hangover Part III: Third Time's... Not Exactly A Charm

The original Hangover was not just a financial success, but it successfully launched the careers of Bradley Cooper and Zack Galifinakis.  They were relatively unknown actors, but familiar faces that I personally didn't believe were bankable when it came to a summer comedy.  It was rated R, it looked like a newer version of Dude, Where's My Car and I thought it would just come and go without a second glance.  I was wrong, obviously, because The Hangover went on to become the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time.  So, naturally the powers that be thought it would be a great idea to put out a sequel as fast as possible.  It was honestly, a smart idea, because who wouldn't want to see another adventure with the Wolf Pack?  Well, writers didn't exactly realize that while viewers wanted another Hangover film, they didn't want the same Hangover film.  The second installment brought our boys to Thailand where... exactly the same events of the first film happened.  They were drugged, they lost the fourth member, they were lost, instead of a baby it was a monkey, instead of a missing tooth it was a tattoo, and so on and so forth.  We literally watched the same movie, with the same jokes, in a different location and the result was, well... disappointment.  Sequels to successful films are given the difficult task of continuing on a story that has (almost always) been concluded in the previous film.  What's not supposed to happen is recreate the same story again.  So, when everyone learned that lesson, they announced The Hangover Part III specifically mentioning that it would be a brand new story.

I thought that the film would be "apology" film for messing up so bad on the second one.  It was the unnecessary second sequel, but was simply put out to apologize to viewers for leaving them with a sour taste in their mouths about the franchise.  It was kind of like the Ocean's 13 to the abysmal Ocean's 12.  The first Ocean's film was a beautiful heist movie set against the neon lights of Vegas.  Then, they tried to do a second one, which was almost exactly like the first one except not even as close as clever in a different location.  So, they brought it back to Vegas for Ocean's 13 which was a good film, but didn't successfully capture the magic the first film brought,  This is exactly the problem with The Hangover Part III.  While the filmmakers and writers certainly learned their lesson from the second film, they couldn't really capture the magic of the first film.  I think it's probably because these guys' story was fun and unique, but it's not something that these guys would really get themselves into over and over and over again and still be funny.

This time around, we've got the Wolf Pack concerned about Alan (Galifinakis) when he's stopped taking his medicine and got himself into a deep funk after the death of his father.  So, Phil, Stu and Doug opt to take him to a mental hospital in Arizona.  On the way they're intercepted by cronies that work for the villainous Marshall (John Goodman) who has been scammed by Chow (Ken Jeong).  Marshall kidnaps Doug and tells the Wolf Pack that they need to bring Chow to him or Doug would be killed.  So, while it's not the same formula of the previous two, poor Doug (Justin Bartha) still doesn't get to be a part of the fun.

There are a lot of fun call backs to the original two films including characters from the first returning as well as the epic return to Las Vegas, but in the rest of the movie a lot of the laughs fall flat.  It almost looks like they were trying TOO hard to get laughs.  And while there are a good amount of laughs, including one that had me in stitches, the movie will basically be exactly as you expect it to be.  If you're excited about Part III, then you'll probably go in with an open mind and allow the film to give you those few and far between guffaws, but if you're over the antics of the Wolf Pack, chances are this isn't going to be the installment to bring you back.

Galifinakis looks like he's having the best time in the role of Alan, but it's almost overboard.  He's become almost too unruly, too weird, to actually think that these guys would genuinely care this much about him.  Bradley Cooper looks like he's just there as a favor to the fans, but is more or less above this type of film.  And Ed Helms is severely underused in the role of Stu, the guy who brings back the group to reality, always bringing to light the true ridiculousness of the situations they constantly find themselves in.  While it's certainly not the worst way to go out, it's that harsh realization that maybe everyone involved should've just left The Hangover alone after the success of the original.  That way, there's nothing bad that can be said about a film that will, most likely, define the comedies of the late 2000s.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Now You See Me: The Closer You Look, The Less You'll Believe

Did you forget this movie came out already?  It was a big hit it's debut week at the box office, but does anyone really remember it, anymore?  I mean, I've seen it and I kind of already forgot about it.  Not that it's a bad movie, because it's not, at all, it's just going to, unfortunately, slip by everyone who didn't see it the first week or two and fade into the obscurity of Redbox.  Now You See Me is a different kind of magician film.  Unlike The Prestige or The Illusionist, this film, I think, is easier to sell than any other.  A group of magicians use their illusions as a cover for robbing banks?  Hell yeah!  Sign me up!  I mean, no matter what, it's going to be better than The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.

Now You See Me tells the story of a group of four different magicians with different abilities: Jesse Eisenberg (the leader), Woody Harrelson (the hypnotist), Isla Fisher (the escape artist) and Dave Franco (the pickpocket).  These four are roped in by a mysterious fifth party in order to plan out a series of intricate heists.  Mark Ruffalo stars along side the troupe as the FBI agent tasked with bringing this magical four down.  Unfortunately, they're always one step ahead of the guy.  The main key in magic is misdirection, which is perfect in robbing banks.  When they've got you looking over here, they're making their move over there and you never saw a thing.

The whole film you're sitting there trying to figure it out yourself.  You're trying to put yourself a step ahead, thinking you're keeping an eye on their misdirection when in reality, there's no way you could figure it out.  I tried my damndest and to the film's credit, they got me.  I honestly didn't see it coming.  Abracadabra alakazam.  I mean, there's even a scene in the very beginning where they pull a card trick on you, the audience member, and they get everyone in the theater.  All of those types of elements and scenes in the film are what make it work.

What hinders the film a little bit are the bits of unbelievability.  Morgan Freeman plays an exiled Magician who makes a living by spoiling the secrets behind magic's most sacred tricks.  During their first heist, the fantastic four seemingly transport a guy from Las Vegas to his bank in Paris, steal the money, lock him in the vault, and release the cash upon the audience.  Later, Freeman explains each part of the trick so that it now makes sense.  But, there's still a lot of little questions that follow the explanation.  How did he do that part?  How did she do that? And so on and so forth.  The unexplained elements of the trick are the ones that couldn't possibly have happened on a live stage.  It's movie magic and believability has to be chopped at the door.  Keep your mind open because it is a lot like a magic trick.  It's fake.  You know it's fake.  But, you're not sure how they did it, so you turn that part of your brain off and just enjoy the show.

There's also not a lot of character work here, either.  Most are just stock characters these actors have already played well in different films in the past.  Eisenberg is the fast-talking dickhole, and he's great at it.  Harrelson is the manipulative comic relief- yup, great too.  It's Fisher and Franco who aren't really given much of anything to do in the film other than what the plan dictates they bring to the table.  The closest we're given to actual character development is the relationship between Mark Ruffalo and the female Interpol agent sent from France to help out with the investigation.  But, it's not a character driven film.  It's a mystery.  It's a magic trick.  It's a fun little distraction from life with a nice little twist at the end.  This is where the film is perfect.  Once you see it, if you can turn your brain off, I'm sure you'll enjoy it.  But once your brain turns back on, Now You See Me will fade from your memory swiftly only to be remembered as that one magic movie I saw that one time a few years ago.


Star Trek: Into Darkness: Khaaaaaaannnnn!!!!

Anybody interested in seeing Star Trek: Into Darkness has likely already seen it by now and I'm not going to do any more persuading.  It's a difficult film for someone like myself to review considering the fact that I've never been much of a sci-fi aficionado, nor have I ever really gotten into any sort of Star Trek universe.  I saw a lot of the originals when I was a kid and forgot them almost as soon as they were over.  I recognized Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean Luc Picard before he was ever Professor X.  I know who the next generation are and I know who the originals are.  I practiced my "live long and prosper" hand sign until I finally got it and could show anyone in a flash.  But, other than that, all the movies sort of, just... blend together.  They're sci-fi that aren't Star Wars or Alien and that means I'm pretty much not going to care.

However, when I saw the first J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek, I was thoroughly impressed.  He was able to give a rather dull Star Trek franchise new life.  Chris Pine was great as the rebellious Captain Kirk, Simon Pegg was in it, the bad guy was a semi-competent foe to our protagonists and there were some pretty epic fight/action scenes.  So, I was on board for a second film.  One thing you can give Abrams credit for, and what I think will make his new Star Wars movies better than George Lucas' prequels is his attention to detail. He's so meticulous when selecting the right shot, at the right place, in the most sophisticated looking area on the ship, or a new planet, or in the heart of space.  The colors he chooses for certain scenes, deep reds, yellows, oranges, blues are each specifically selected to reflect the mood of the scene as well as accentuate the beauty of film.  Star Trek: Into Darkness is viscerally stunning, and that's obviously not an accident.

While Abrams has a keen eye for the visual, he's never been one to get too bogged down in story.  While I'm not saying that ST:ID has no story, it's that the story we're given doesn't feel like it has the Abrams seal of originality.  There are still a lot of sci-fi tropes in the film that we've seen before, as well as sequel-itis.  There has to be new conflict for our crew because the conflict of the first film has already been resolved.  So, our heroes bicker and fight and misunderstand each other to the point of almost obnoxiousness.  It's the hitch of the sequel.

But, what lacks slightly in this film is made up ten fold by the new antagonist (spoiler alert, but I know you've already seen it) Kahn.  I'd never seen Benedict Cumberbatch in anything before, but had heard that he's fantastic in his Sherlock Holmes television show.  I'm almost sure I can back that up because he's fantastic in this film too.  While he looks a little lanky and his deep British voice surely doesn't match his face, he's terrifying.  He could tell me he just made me pancakes in that voice and I'd probably pass out from fear.  The whole film, you're never quite sure of his angle.  While you inevitably know that Khan is not a good guy, you have to wonder if what he's saying in each scene is the truth or if he's weaving this web of lies in order to plan this gigantic double cross of our heroes.  He's what truly drives the film.

Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, and Karl Urban (incredibly underrated actor by the way) shine as well.  They're finally starting to fit together in a neat little package that makes us want to sit and watch their journeys and missions.  The first Star Trek had everyone at odds with one another and all you really wanted to see were these people getting along finally.  Well, now they're starting to, and even as a cohesive unit, they're still frail and imperfect.  If there's ever a third installment, Abrams should do well to keep in mind that we like these guys.  We want them to work together.  But, there also needs to be a kick-ass bad guy to tear them all apart.  That's where this film truly succeeds.

So, what can I say about Star Trek: Into Darkness?  It's pretty much what you'd expect it to be.  It's just like the first film, but with a better villain.