Saturday, June 15, 2013
It’s all been leading up to this. Not long after “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” Seth Rogen made a splash back in 2007 when he starred in Knocked Up and co-wrote “Superbad.” Let’s thank Judd Apatow. And ever since then him and his writing partner Evan Goldberg have been cranking out really funny and irreverent films. Sure there have been some hiccups along the way (I never saw “The Watch;” nobody did). But never have they come up with something so spectacularly awesome as “This is the End.” It’s a project that could have easily failed miserably. Seth Rogen playing himself along with a slew of slack pack Hollywood actors set during an apocalyptic event? All set inside James Franco’s multimillion dollar bachelor pad? It has all the makings of self-congratulating masturbatory pretentiousness. But these guys are smart. And funny. Very very funny. And this film only works because audiences have spent the last six or so years getting to know the onscreen personalities of the actors in the movie.
Seth Rogen plays himself. Most people probably think of him in real life a schlubby guy who eats bad food and gets high a lot. That’s pretty much how he’s portrayed. He picks up his friend Jay Baruchel who starred in his own movie, you probably never saw “She’s Out of My League.” The guys are best friends, but Jay isn’t into the LA lifestyle and so he feels like an outcast amongst Seth’s other good friends Jonah Hill and James Franco. They attend a party at Franco’s house with lots of famous people. Sure these aren’t old Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise or George Clooney. We’re talking those funny guys you see in movies that haven’t quite paid their dues just yet. Look, there’s Michael Cera! He’s sort of a douche and he keeps slapping Rihanna’s ass. Hey, it’s Daryl from The Office. His name is Craig Robertson. Speaking of The Office, it’s Mindy Kaling! Of course Jason Segal is there. Even Hermione herself Emma Watson is chilling. And the kid who played McLovin. It’s a “Superbad” reunion!
Things take a turn for the worse when Seth and Jay visit a convenient store to get some munchies. A powerful earthquake rips through the city and some people are beaming into the sky by streams of blue light. They head back to the party where a giant sink hole forms hilariously sending many of these actors to their deaths. Cera gets it the worst, having a street lamp pierce him through the chest while everyone watches on in horror. The only ones left are Seth, Jay, Craig, Jonah, and James. They have no idea what’s going on, but decide to barricade themselves in the house. They figure since they’re actors rescue is most likely imminent. And let’s not forget that Danny McBride has been passed out in the bathtub and has no clue what’s been going on. And so begins what essentially becomes a feature film version of Big Brother with celebrities set during the apocalypse. There are too many surprises and laughs to go into much depth, but anyone who finds any of these guys’ humor is going to love every minute of it.
The film is surprisingly witty and well-paced. Rogen and Goldberg make their directorial debut and it’s simply wonderful. Every scene has some kid of sidesplitting laugh or surprise. You never quite know where it’s going and the mystery about what’s actually happening out there is perfectly and slowly revealed. Each actor has a great time playing a caricature version of their real life persona. Jonah Hill seems rather stuck up and special; after all he’s been nominated for an Oscar. As has Franco, who keeps all sorts of props from his movies including the camera from “127 Hours” and a prop gun from “Flyboys.” McBride probably comes off as the worse after he threatens the groups food and water supply and even dirties up the house’s only adult entertainment magazine. The whole thing is such a deliciously meta exercise in wickedly funny comedy.
The screenplay hits all the right notes. Even when you think you know what’s going to happen it occurs in a completely different way. The name Channing Tatum is mentioned, you think: well he has to turn up somewhere right? But not nearly where you’d expect. The humor here, with all of Rogen’s work is completely juvenile. There are even scenes of the actors drinking their own urine to survive, but it’s all in the name of hilarious comedy. And the violence is so over the top (we get to see the point of view of a severed head) that all you can do is laugh.
“This is the End” is so subversive and irreverent I’m amazed any studio had the balls to green light it. But why wouldn’t they? Rogen himself has proven that his brand of childish humor is something that really sells today. And it does because it connects with major audiences. The film is so fresh and funny the actors make it seem easy. It feels like a bunch of friends who decided to make a movie by playing themselves. But it looks anything but simple. There are some truly astounding special effects at work here especially for a comedy. And while the actors are basically playing themselves, they all give terrific performances. The relationship between Seth and Jay is disturbingly well fleshed out and as certain things are revealed you realize how much movie stars are just like you and me. It even has a, dare I say, poignant message.
“This is the End” is a simply astounding film from beginning to end. You’ll be in awe at how good it really is. I definitely am. If you’re a fan of any of these guys or of irreverent, ridiculous, and even offensive humor you’ll love it. It just may be the funniest movie of the year. GRADE: A
Friday, June 14, 2013
Is it even possible to make a really great Superman movie these days that will be universally loved? In 2006 Bryan Singer’s romanticized “Superman Returns” landed in theaters with a collective “meh” and I’m not quite sure anyone’s been clamoring for more. I enjoyed that film for what it was even though it was full of flaws (including a terribly bland Lois Lane and a mildly bland Brandon Routh). Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” hoped to correct all that. Now with the massively successful “Dark Knight” trilogy out of the way, Warner Bros decided to have another turn at bat with a darker, more brooding take on Superman. Even Christopher Nolan was brought in to help move things along. The result is sort of a mix bag: “Man of Steel” has some great sequences and is overall pretty exciting, but its focus on mind-numbing action and certain narrative choices stop it from becoming the definitive Superman movie.
A better title for Man of Steel might as well have been “Superman Begins.” After the success of the first Spider-man film and Batman Begins, the movie studios chose to follow the formula of telling various comic superhero characters’ origins. Why not start at the beginning and start a franchise? “Man of Steel” begins on the planet Krypton where a massive war is being waged and the planet is in imminent danger of a full on destruction because of its unstable core. General Zod (Michael Shannon) is basically being a big jerk and kills Jor-El (Russell Crowe) but not before he and his wife send their newborn son Kal-El in a space pod destined for planet Earth. Zod is banished to the Phantom Zone for his crime and is never to be heard from again, or until the plot requires his obvious return. It’s cool to see Krypton in all its CGI glory but this prologue goes on for far too long. We then cut to Kal-El as an adult now played by a homeless man version of Henry Cavill. We then see too many childhood flashbacks, which interrupt the flow of the film. His name is Clark Kent and we see him discovering his various superhuman abilities like x-ray vision and super strength. He’s raised by an Earthling couple played by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane. They are both great here. While I actually really liked these flashbacks, they are awkwardly placed and the film would have benefited from telling a more straightforward narrative.
Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is introduced while on assignment somewhere near the North Pole. It just so happens to be the location where Kal-El can communicate with the consciousness of his deceased father. Kal-El saves Lois after being injured and she becomes intent on discovering her rescuer’s identity. And then eventually it’s revealed that General Zod had been released from the Phantom Zone after Krypton was destroyed. That’s convenient. He then travels to Earth and demand that they give up Kal-El or face dire consequences which include a third act of lots of mind-numbing action.
Most might have complained that “Superman Returns” didn’t have enough action. Well Man of Steel just may have too much. Now, the film’s action-packed third act is nowhere near as atrocious as something Michael Bay might have made, but it still feels like action and destruction to pad out an already slightly bloated runtime. If there was even a whiff of actual suspense then it would at least be justified. But how suspenseful is it to watch two guys who practically can’t be killed fight each other? Where’s kryptonite when you need it? But in the end the movie is all worth it because it sets up what could possibly be a better and more familiar Superman story. Clark finally puts on those thick black framed glasses and perhaps we’ll finally get to see a ripped Henry Cavill act like a nerdy buffoon.
Am I being too critical? Yes and no. It is summertime and movies tend to be a lot dumber. It must be because so many kids are out of school. But at the same time many people have been waiting patiently for a Superman movie that is just plain awesome. “Man of Steel” comes close. There are some pretty great visuals here and for the most part there are some great thrilling moments which are enhanced by Hans Zimmer’s pounding score. Cavill is a good Superman overall. He’s got the look and the charm. Thought he doesn’t get to spend enough time as “Clark Kent” so the jury’s still out on that. I do think this is probably the best the filmmakers could have done with such an outdated American character, at least until the sequel. But the film moves along too swiftly foregoing character development in order to get to the action, but if we don’t know the characters why should we care whether they live or die? In the end the movie reveals its biggest surprise: for a more traditional Superman film, “Superman Returns” might actually be the way to go. GRADE: B-
Monday, June 10, 2013
If the filmmakers behind “The Purge” really had something important to say, they wouldn’t have made a horror-thriller. Genre filmmaking, while not impossible to get a message across, isn’t really the best outlet for a “message movie.” And that’s why you’re better off watching “The Purge” for what it is – a creepy chiller with a fascinatingly audacious premise than the important morality play it might have hoped to be. The film takes place in the year 2022 and it opens just hours before the “Annual Purge:” a twelve hour period, sanctioned by the American Government, in which all violent crime, including murder, is completely legal. Now, not every crime is legal; one couldn’t assassinate the President or drop a nuclear bomb. But you know that ex-spouse you hate? Or that jerk boss that you wish was dead? Or the teacher that flunked you? It’s a deliciously clever concept that writer/director James DeMonaco has crafted into an eerie home invasion plot. It’s nowhere near a perfect film, but it’s one that so ingenious you’re willing to forgive its flaws. The whole thing feels like “The Strangers” meets “Panic Room” filtered through “The Hunger Games.”
Ethan Hawke plays James Sandin. He’s a well off guy with a beautiful wife named Mary (Lena Headey) and a teenage daughter and young son. He sells high tech security systems so that the rich folk who can afford them can barricade themselves in their houses during the Purge and throw fancy parties. Of course, it seems that those who bought his systems look at him with envious eyes. While many lessons will be learned on this particularly Purge evening, the important thing to know is that when murder is completely legal, anyone could be willing to kill. But I digress. James and Mary finish a nice dinner with their family and then lock themselves into their house ready to wait out the next twelve hours.
It appears that with this Purge comes many “benefits:” the inherently violent nature of the human race has slowed. There are hardly any violent crimes throughout the year and therefore the economy is booming and employment rates are very high. But of course as the saying goes it’s really the survival of the fittest. A group of random masked prepsters hunt down homeless people, for instance, and one injured guy is let into the Sandin home by James’ young son Charlie. Now these masked creepers, one of which is credited as “Polite Stranger,” who are using their legal right to purge, insist that the family let this guy go, so they can kill him (which they technically have every right to do) or they’ll find their way inside the house and kill the entire family.
I can’t really reveal too much without spoiling the fun. Some people will be able to see certain plot elements before they occur while others will be so caught up in what’s going on that those won’t matter. Certain situations the characters find themselves in get resolved a little too easily at times but it’s no less intense. Some people will see certainly plot developments before they happen or argue with some characters’ decision making. If predictability and character motivation are the film’s biggest flaws those are not necessarily a bad thing. The film is also fiendishly ingenious. I loved learning all the little bits about how the purge was created. Even the simplest thing, like people who plant blue flowers on their lawn are supporters of the Purge, were pretty interesting. It’s fascinating to see people who are so accustomed to feeling safe during such a violent time become violent themselves in order to survive. And I loved how the film ended so much I actually wished then and there for a sequel to be made.
“The Purge” is a great little movie. It’s low budget but never cheap looking and whatever flaws creep up it makes up for with sheer creepiness. I jumped at all the right points. Sure it basically creates more questions than it answers and characters do stupid things, but what do you expect from this genre? It’s a stylish and entertaining thriller from beginning to end; I really enjoyed this one. GRADE: B+
Saturday, May 18, 2013
Critic Owen Gleiberman said it best, "It's has everything you could want in a Star Trek movie." And that's true because it's actually nothing like a Star Trek movie. Those old movies from way back in the 1980s were slow, cheesy, and underwhelming. This sequel to the hit 2009 reboot/prequel is anything but. It's intense, exciting, thrilling, and most importantly relevant to today. It is in fact, the second movie to come out this summer to have a subplot involving terrorism. It's a sad fact that it's something we have to deal with in today's world, but it makes sense that it's weaved into our escapist entertainment. It makes the movies more relevant and a reflection of the time. As a non-Star Trek fan I'm sure the original films were a reflection of their times, but times they are a-changing. “Star Trek Into Darkness” is an outstandingly fun and awesomely realized action adventure with thrilling set pieces and dazzling visuals. If the first movie was “Star Trek Begins,” this new film is certainly “The Dark Knight” level entertainment.
You don’t have to be a big fan, nor have to of seen the last Star Trek movie to enjoy “Into Darkness” though it certainly doesn’t hurt. You get a great sense of what director JJ Abrams was trying to accomplish with his Star Trek visions. He wants to take you on a super fun and incredibly thrilling adventure. He’s set up younger, dare I say cooler, versions of the trademark Star Trek characters including the charming yet cocky Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), the half human-half Vulcan no-nonsense First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), the beautiful communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Russian navigator Chekov (Anton Yelchin), chief medical officer Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), engineer Scotty (Simon Pegg), and helmsman Sulu (John Cho). It’s a great cast that works immensely well together. The villain this time around is played by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch playing a guy named John Harrison. The plot is set into motion when Harrison perpetrates a bombing in London and eventually attacks a meeting at the Starfleet Command killing several important officers. The USS Enterprise is then deployed to find Harrison, who’s hiding out in Klingon territory, where he’s actually revealed to be a genetically enhanced human with a rather familiar name. Whether hardcore Star Trek fans will like this development I’m not quite sure.
Screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof have crafted a wonderful story around these characters who interact so well with each other. Scotty at first refuses to partake in the mission because he only foresees disaster. And besides, the Enterprise is an exploratory vessel, not a warship. He’s quickly replaced by Chekov, but becomes instrumental later in the film. Abrams, who has publically declared he’s not really that much of a Star Trek fan in the first place, has opted for more frenzied action than the slow-moving drama most are accustomed to in these movies. It actually works much better as he explores the type of fun action and effects that can actually be pulled off with these terrific characters and modern effects. Kirk and Spock ever the best friends who never quite seem to get along, are wonderfully realized by Pine and Quinto. You could give them their own sitcom and it would be completely watchable. And Abrams, who’s always being influenced by the films of Steven Spielberg, even stages some great Spielbergian moments including an instantly memorable “Raiders” style opening sequence and an intense chase sequence in the final act that was something out of “Minority Report.”
The film’s production values are unsurprisingly top notch. The effects are simply astounding. There is simply no room for the cheese factor that marred the original films. The cinematography is beautiful, lens flares and all. The movie which was post-converted into 3D, doesn’t really need the extra dimension, but it doesn’t hinder the experience. However, the bigger the screen the better.
“Star Trek Into Darkness” is a completely enjoyable experience for anyone who loves big fun action spectacles. You don’t need to be a Star Trek fan to enjoy the ride; in fact, you’re most likely better off not being a Star Trek fan to get the most out of the experience. I simply cannot wait to see what they have in store for the third installment. GRADE: A-