Friday, September 30, 2011

My Faris Lady: “What’s Your Number?” is Clichéd Rom-Com Junk Food

Romantic comedies are like horror films: both are typically riddled with clichés. They always tend to follow the formula yet people turn out for them over and over again. There’s a reason: they work. Why mess with a particularly successful formula? Sure once in a while a movie breaks the mold and tries something new. The latest rom-com starring perennially funny girl Anna Faris does not break the mold. In fact, it rarely deviates from the mold. Here we have a pretty girl, who has had lots of relationships, yet they all never work out. What’s a hot chick like Anna Faris to do? Maybe the equally hot guy across the hall that looks a lot like Chris Evans is the man of her dreams? No way, he’s a womanizing jerk! How could they ever be the perfect match? Oh the clichés, let me count the ways.

A romantic comedy’s success firmly stands on how well the romantic leads work together. If there is no chemistry between the actors there can be no chemistry between the characters. There is something between Anna Faris, who plays Ally Darling and Chris Evans who plays Colin Shea. Ally is in sort of a rut. She’s just been fired from her marketing job and then she makes the biggest mistake a woman her age can make: she follows advice from one of those girly magazines. She realizes that she’s slept with way too many guys (the national average is apparently 10.5) and her friends tell her that if she keeps having failed relationships she’s doomed to never settle down and get married. This begins a whole crusade to track down her ex-boyfriends in hopes that perhaps one of them has changed enough to be her dream man. Spoiler alert: he’s actually waiting across the hall. Ally enlists the help of her too-jock-like-to-be-a-struggling-musician across the hall neighbor Colin (Evans). Apparently Colin knows how to get dirt on people since he used to go on stakeouts with his cop dad. Anyone with half a brain can tell you that Colin and Ally will end up together in the end (but not before a temporary setback in which they have an argument or fight and then one of them seeks the other out to professes their love to the other in which the other one realizes they love the other one too and then they kiss and live happily ever after).

To be honest, I rooted for Ally and Colin but that’s mostly because I find Faris and Evans to be some of the most charming actors working today. They’re so likable you forget that the script refuses to let them be together until the last 15 minutes or so. And Ally is such an beautiful girl you wonder why she’s attracted so many losers. These include a puppeteer played by Andy Samberg, her creepy ex-boss played by Joel McHale, and a former fatty but newly svelte and engaged guy played by Faris’ real life beau Chris Pratt. With all these obvious losers behind her, I’m not quite sure why Ally wouldn’t just immediately throw herself at Colin, but I guess even some women who’ve slept with 20 guys have some standards. Meanwhile, there’s a subplot involving Ally’s younger sister Daisy’s (Ari Graynor) wedding and her attempts to avoid her overbearing mother played wonderfully by Blythe Danner.

I think one of the major flaws of the film is its attempts to be just plain filthy. Ally, Daisy, and their friends talk about sex and vaginas and penises, and while it’s refreshing to here women talk about this stuff rather than men, it felt rather forced to me. It was as if they were trying to compete with movies like “Bridesmaids” in the raunch department. Screenwriters Gabrielle Allan and Jennifer Crittenden (and director Mark Mylod) seem more interested in finding ways to get Colin and Ally undressed than to have any character say or do anything remotely profound. And the comedy part of this romantic comedy sort of lacks too. Faris is hilarious and she has a few standout moments and lines, but otherwise she’s playing it remotely safe. She’s as likable as ever, but she has yet to find a starring role that really plays to her brilliant comedic talents.

Ally and Colin belong together, but the script says they can’t be together until the end of the movie. Meanwhile we have to sit through lots of jokes about creepy guys sniffing their own crotches, a neighbor who supposedly has sex with his dog and a completely random game of Strip HORSE at the TD Garden arena. “What’s Your Number?” adds nothing new to a repeatedly worn out genre and can only be redeemed because of the two completely likable leads. One day I believe Faris will get the script she truly deserves, but until then I guess this will have to do. GRADE: C+

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Cult Above the Rest: Kevin Smith Gets Preachy in “Red State”

If you don’t like political views being shoved down you’re throat then you probably shouldn’t see “Red State.” You also probably shouldn’t see it if you don’t like watching people being violently executed while bound to a crucifix. Kevin Smith no stranger to controversy in the cinematic world has unleashed a new kind of film that is unlike anything he has done before. And people thought “Cop Out” was uncharacteristic. “Red State” is not a comedy whatsoever. It’s about a religious cult somewhere in Middle America who persecute all types of sexual deviancy including what they see as the ultimate perversion: homosexuality. These fundamentalists see themselves as some kind of martyrs whose job it is to destroy these sinners all the while they, the last time I checked, committing a sing themselves BECAUSE THEY ARE MURDERING PEOPLE.

The film starts off similarly to movies like “Hostel” where horny teenage boys set off to have some promiscuous sex and instead find themselves being bound and gagged and tortured. Jared (Kyle Gallner) and his two buddies visit a sex internet site with the intention of having sex with an older woman. They drive out that night to meet up where they encounter Sarah Cooper (Melissa Leo). She offers them some beer first. What teenage boy wouldn’t accept beer from a middle aged woman in a trailer? As soon as they begin stripping off their clothes it’s revealed they’ve been drugged and unfortunately sex is the last thing they will be getting this evening. Jared wakes up in a metal cage where he witnesses a preacher named Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) giving a hate-filled sermon about the evils of homosexuality and other sexual abominations. Good thing Jared is not a homosexual right? Wrong.

This is where the film sort of lost me because having three straight teenage boys being persecuted by this “Five Points Church” religious cult didn’t quite make too much sense to me. The film opens with these people protesting a gay teenager’s funeral. There is so much debating and discussions revolving around the idea of homosexuality that I thought it was strange that the main characters being attacked by these people aren’t even homosexual. Sarah and Abin’s excuse for targeting these boys is that they were willing to all have sexual relations with Sarah all at once, which makes it even worse apparently. I don’t know, that all seemed fishy to me at best. I can imagine that kind of heat Smith would have taken if he actually had gay main characters being bound and gagged. What kind of example could he be setting? He’s obviously not on the fundamentalist side, but that would have been much too hard to witness.

The actual filmmaking here itself feels sort of shotty at best. Smith came from his gritty, independent roots and he definitely returns to them here. The film has a very low budget, digital look and feel but instead of giving the film a grainy look, it really just feels “direct-to-video” instead. I’m not quite surprised the film wasn’t picked up for theatrical distribution after premiering at Sundance. And I’m not even really quite sure what to even classify this thing. I would assume it’s supposed to be horror and while it has shocking parts, I was never that quite scared. The idea of a group of people seeking out “deviants” and executing them for their “sins” is scary itself, but I think the execution here is a little off. The film goes from being “Hostel” to being a hostage shootout movie once the film shifts to John Goodman’s character an AFT agent who becomes aware that these church freaks not only have hostages, but entire machine gun arsenal.

I know Kevin Smith is a talented guy, I’ve never been his biggest fan, but he certainly has a strong cult following. I appreciate him wanting to break away from his more standard gross out comedies. I mean what film fan wouldn’t want to direct their own horror movie? This is his. I can’t quite say it’s completely successful, but it’s not bad for a filmmaker who has never worked in this genre before. The film features some good performances (especially Leo who nails every movie she’s in) but the film’s odd tonal shifts and low budget feel sort of work against it. GRADE: C+

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Man of the House: James Marsden Searches for his Masculinity in the New “Straw Dogs”

Alexander Skarsgård certainly has come a long way since playing a ditzy male model in “Zoolander.” The charming Swedish “True Blood” star gives a terrific performance as Charlie, a creepy but charismatic red neck southerner who makes a perfect foil to timid screenwriter David Sumner (played by James Marsden). “Straw Dogs” is a remake yes, and sure it basically has no reason to exist, but here’s a theme that is worth revisiting: regaining masculinity through violence. It’s a subject ripe for discussion and even if this a typical glossy remake that isn’t particularly memorable or original, it still evokes the power and tension of the original film, right up until the end when a mousy man must brutally slaughter half a dozen other guys just to prove he is, in fact, a man.

David Sumner (Marsden) is a Hollywood screenwriter who moves with his TV actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) back to her hometown in Blackwater, Mississippi. There he plans on finishing up his script, while Amy can oversee fixing up her late father’s farm property. She hires her old friend Charlie (Skarsgård) and his crew of sloppy, greasy buddies to fix up the barn’s roof which was damaged in a recent hurricane. There’s an immediate culture clash between David and the locals, where the tension builds for nearly the entire length of the film. David is the LA type; he drives a fancy car, wears nice clothes, is well-groomed, doesn’t “get” religion and cares more about cell service than anything else. He’s not a cocky guy or dislikable by any means, but Charlie and his friends are immediately turned off by the very presence of this metrosexual. Especially since Amy and Charlie used to have a thing together back in the day. Amy immediately begins to flirt with Charlie and it begins to send him over the edge. It seems as though Amy wants a real man and David may just may not be man enough for her. A sexual attack eventually takes place and it’s the fascinating ambiguity in Amy’s reaction that drives the film forward.

The original 1971 “Straw Dogs” has always been a notorious film fitting in with the likes of “A Clockwork Orange” as a brutally violent film that met controversy the moment it was released. Many have been confused about the depiction of violence in the film as glorifying horrible acts and cheering violence as a valid form of vengeance. I don’t think the film glorifies violence at all and neither does this new film. The acts of violence are supposed to be shocking although in this day and age it’s much harder to be. Writer/director Rod Lurie, like Sam Peckinpah, builds the tension through the whole film before giving us anything very shocking. When that rape scene occurs it feels earned, not out of place, and it’s as difficult to watch as any rape scene should be. The film will also be remembered as statement that violence helps a man regain his masculinity. In the original film Dustin Hoffman is a nerdy mathematician, here he’s a screenwriter. He’s not tough; Charlie looks down on him as much as Amy does, and he’s always being stepped on. But like the tagline reminds us, everyone has a breaking point.

“Straw Dogs” features some great performances, especially from the three leads. I was particularly impressed with Bosworth if simply because I’ve always found her sort of bland and uninteresting. Marsden, an arguably masculine guy does will against type here and does mousy surprisingly well. Skarsgård is particularly impressive. And James Woods gives a disturbing performance as a pent up overprotective hothead. “Straw Dogs” won’t erase the existence of the original film and if this makes those unfamiliar with it add it to their Netflix cue than that’s a good thing. I’m not exactly an avid fan of the original film but I found this a worthy and fascinating enough film that’s certainly worth checking out. GRADE: B

Monday, September 19, 2011

Stunt Trouble: The Exhilarating and Intense “Drive” Will Leave You Feeling Exhausted

“Drive” isn’t exactly the most fun movie to watch but it’s certainly an intense experience. It’s a movie that is almost as pretty as it is ugly. It shows the dark, seedy side of LA, a side of the city most filmmakers love exposing. It’s filled with grotesque violence, but even the sleek nature of the film doesn’t glorify this violence. It’s brutal and ugly and not fun. You won’t feel good watching Albert Brooks stab a guy repeatedly in the neck. “Drive” tells a dark story about crime through the eyes of a part time Hollywood stunt driver/auto mechanic. Ryan Gosling, as the “driver,” gives another outstanding performance in what can only be described as an art-house heist thriller as filtered through the likes of Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers.

The film opens brilliantly as it establishes the sheer talent of the unnamed main character "the driver” (Gosling). He works various night jobs as a getaway driver. He gives the robbers five minutes to get into the car and he can avoid and lose the cops faster than you can say “Steve McQueen.” His boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston) at the auto shop where he works sets these gigs up. Shannon is involved with a Jewish mob guy named Bernie. And even though Bernie is played by the same guy who voiced a clown fish in “Finding Nemo” (Albert Brooks) he is one mean dude. He’s associated with another scary guy named Nino (Ron Pearlman). Bernie and Nino are the last people you’d want to be associated with as our driver will soon find out. Some of these relationships become a little confusing, but the point is obvious: these are bad fellas. And "driver" begins to become romantically involved with his cute neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) who has a young son. Her husband is being released from prison and he owes a major “debt.” Driver cares just enough for this woman that he’s willing to get involved in a heist that, for lack of better words, goes horribly wrong.

All this mobster and heist and bags of money stuff are familiar elements that we’ve seen countless times before, but somehow Hossein Amini’s script (based on the book of the same name) transcends the genre. There's much more focus on character than is usually found in films like this. There’s minimum dialogue which is put to great use by director Nicolas Winding Refn. He stages the heist sequences with almost unbearable tension and it’s always from the driver’s point of view. The driving sequences are almost so well staged and realistic that those who get car sick might want to bring a barf bag. Speaking of barf bags, the violence here is almost so sudden and unsettling you almost wonder what the ratings board was really thinking. But the violence here, like I mentioned previously, is not cool or entertaining. It is what it's supposed to be: brutal and repulsive. Refn’s use of music and Cliff Martinez’s electronic score is pretty standout and it gives the film a sort of strange 80s vibe (and that wicked pink font helps too). The film overall feels like something from the American New Wave, although comparisons to European cinema are not at all wrong.

“Drive” is so well directed and acted it almost feels like a shoo-in for awards once the time comes. But I wonder if this is a film that’s too edgy for the Academy’s tastes? It’s a sleekly made, visceral film that’s actually pretty difficult to describe. It’s certainly unlike what you may expect. Those expecting something amusing on the level of a “Fast and the Furious” film will be utterly disappointed. Think more “Taxi Driver” meets “No Country for Old Men” with car chases. Although it has action and suspense and drama this is an art house indie film through and through. It’s certainly, and appropriately, not the most entertaining film of the year, but it’s certainly one of the most unforgettable. GRADE: A-

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Maid to Order: “The Help” is a Wonderful Ensemble Drama

I don’t know if “The Help” will be remembered as a landmark in race relations cinema the way “The Color Purple” or “Do the Right Thing” are but darned if it isn’t just a fun, entertaining piece of moving filmmaking (and certainly much lighter and easier to digest). It’s sort of reminded me of a weird hybrid of “Hairspray” (without the songs) and “Steel Magnolias.” It’s definitely the “chick flick” of the summer, but don’t let that scare you away my fellow friends from Mars, “The Help” is a moving piece of work and if you’re a fan of any of the ladies on display you might find yourself getting sucked in to this thing. Deep down it’s essentially a Lifetime movie in big budget clothing, but the actors are so good you might actually forget that you’re most likely completely surrounded by middle aged women.

Being a huge Emma Stone fan I was excited to see her breakout into something more than just silly comedies. Here she does drama straight on as Skeeter, a young aspiring journalist living in 1950s Jackson, Mississippi. She hasn’t been “courting” so naturally her mother (an always wonderful Allison Janney) thinks she’s a lesbian. She’s too busy to meet boys. She’d rather be a career woman which was a big no no in that time. Women’s jobs back then were to be wives and mothers. And the jobs of black women in those days were as maids and servants. This is the story of Aibileen (Viola Davis), a lifelong maid who spends her days working for snobby white women. She practically raises these kids and in fact they look up to her more than their own mother. Skeeter has a crazy idea to write an article the point of view of “the help:” the black maids in town.

This of course is mostly unheard of because as we all recall black and white matters were an extremely hot issue back then and someone like Skeeter could get in a lot of trouble for giving these poor women a voice. One of which is Minny (a radiant Octavia Spencer) who gets a job working for Jessica Chastain’s Celia Foote, a white high society woman who has been ostracized by her fellow bridge club ladies for reasons to be revealed later in the story. It is the relationship between Celia and Minny truly form the heart and soul of this movie. Sure Emma Stone is great and Viola Davis can act circles around anyone who comes near her, but the Celia/Minny scenes truly shine. Spencer, who finally gets a role to sink her teeth into had previously played bit parts such as “troubled woman,” “bank co-worker,” and “big customer.” Here she gives an Oscar worthy performance as a sassy maid who won’t let anything bring her down, even a rivalry with her former employer played with perfect white bitch nastiness by Bryce Dallas Howard.

“The Help” is directed by Taylor Tate (he’s white), who wrote the script from Kathryn Stockett’s novel, and he somehow really gets inside these women. Her certainly seems to have gotten the period details right. Although I can't be certain since this takes place way before my time. On paper most of these roles are simply “the good guy” or “the bad guy” but the actresses make them their own. Stone’s character exists essentially as a plot device: we’re not really sure why she cares for these maids but the other white women don’t so much. She’s so good as a woman determined to make a difference and not care about what others think she almost makes you forget we’ve seen characters like this dozens of times before. Howard, as the mean girl queen bee, is made to be so hateful that even when Minny does a despicable thing, you cheer instead of sneer. Janney’s character who we think is just a racist like all the others even has a chance to redeem herself by the film’s end and forms one of the film’s more satisfying minor character arcs. Even Sissy Spacek is great in a tiny role as Howard’s mother.

If you’re like me, and you’re not a middle aged woman, you probably wanted to see “The Help” because you like Emma Stone or because you heard about Viola Davis’ great performance. Yeah they’re wonderful, but Chastain and Spencer are where it’s at. Chastain is a star on the rise (with two other magnetic performances in The Tree of Life and The Debt) and even though she sound just like Daryl Hannah in “Steel Magnolias” (tell me I’m wrong) she really makes this role her own. And Spencer is just radiant as well, she’s so lovable and easy to root for. Even if it has a fault or two “The Help” was definitely a pleasant surprise. GRADE: B+

Friday, September 09, 2011

The Plague’s the Thing: “Contagion” is a First Class Outbreak Disaster Flick

One this is for certain: if “Contagion” is a box office success everyone should probably invest in hand sanitizer stock. That stuff is gonna start selling like hotcakes. Just a couple years ago, the “swine flu,” or rather the more PC term “h1n1 flu,” became a hot media sensation when various people all over the country began contracting a new deadly virus. Of course things didn’t turn out like they did in the terrific 1995 thriller “Outbreak” but it was enough of a concern that Purell dispensers were installed all over my work building. Disaster flicks have always been popular in Hollywood and while they’re mostly just fantasy, sometimes some movies come along that are so realistic and well-made they almost seem too real.

“Contagion” is almost so real it’s scary. It’s not exactly the most pleasant movie to sit through but it sure is captivating. As directed by Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh the film is a well-cast ensemble piece. We get everyday characters like you and me and government officials and various doctors and scientists. The film begins when a woman returning home from a trip to China gets sick. Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns home to her family in the States, the next day she begins having a seizure. Her husband Mitch brings her to the hospital, where she unexpectedly dies. Not only is Mitch dumbfounded, but so are the doctors. We see other cases of this disease in other parts of the world where slowly the bug is passed along to a few and then to thousands upon thousands of people. It appears to be airborne.

The movie is shot as if it were “Traffic” meets “Outbreak.” We see the point of view of workers at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. Laurence Fishburne is Dr. Ellis Cheever who knows that this is one serious bug and that it’s spreading faster than they can cure it. He enlists the help of Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) who is an expert in dealing with epidemics. It is through her that we learn some disturbing true facts. Things like we, as humans, touch our face thousands of times and in between we’re touching so many various objects from doorknobs to faucets to other people. Germs are everywhere and once in a while people come in contact with really, really bad ones.

There is a somewhat sterile sheen to the whole proceeding which sort of left me sort of emotionally detached from a majority of what was going on, but I think that works for the film. Sure there were characters I cared about (most notably Winslet’s) but I think we ultimately spend too little time with everyone to become too invested. But we are invested mostly because they’re humans and we’re humans and Scott Burn’s script is so realistic that the film feels more of a documentary with high production value recreations than a traditional narrative. Meanwhile we get some political muckraking in the form of Jude Law’s blogger/journalist Alan Krumwiede who believes the CDC are liars and insist there’s a larger conspiracy going on.

Soderbergh’s trademark style (including those colorful filters) has always been realism, which he founded in the groundbreaking “Sex Lies and Videotape;” it’s a style that has followed him in his career for over two decades. And he’s one of the most diverse directors working today. He can go from churning out Hollywood hits (like Erin Brockovich or Ocean’s Eleven) to tiny indies you probably haven’t even heard of (Bubble or The Limey). Here he fuses them together to gives us an unsettling and realistic look at what would happen if something like this did really happen. It’s scary without being sensationalistic and it features some terrific performances. He even has the balls to kill off Gwyneth Paltrow before you even get a chance to finish your bag of popcorn.

“Contagion” will make you think twice about what you touch and put near your mouth. It’s obviously common courtesy to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, but it’s scary to think how many people never do. It’s not exactly a film that is going to scare the living daylights out of people to the point of wanting to become invalids, but it’ll make you wish you hadn’t booked that dream vacation to Hong Kong. GRADE: B+

Friday, September 02, 2011

Lake Flaccid: “Shark Night 3D” Doesn’t Quite Have the Same Bite as Piranha 3D

I know you’re dying to know whether “Shark Night 3D” is better or worse than last year’s surprisingly fun financial bomb “Piranha 3D.” It’s worse. But it has entertainment value if you enjoy watching hot people being eating by sharks. I can imagine most people being disappointed with the lack of hardcore gore, lack of bare breasts and an unfortunate lack of tongue-in-cheek fun. This is probably what “Piranha 3D” could have been but I’m extremely grateful it wasn’t. Now that’s not to say that “Shark Night 3D” is a total loss, because it’s not. It’s a stupid movie that gets stupider as it goes along and it’s pretty much pure junk but who doesn’t like some cinematic crap every once in a while?

“Shark Night 3D” offers exactly what you expect and nothing more. It has sharks and it takes place mostly at night and it’s in three dimensions. The story, if anyone even cares, revolves around college coed Sara (Sara Paxton showing about a total of 1.5 emotions throughout) inviting her friends to her Louisiana lake house on the bayou. It’s pretty isolated. So isolated in fact that not only do they not get cell service there, but they don’t even have a landline (Heck even the Professor was able to make a phone on Gilligan’s Island I think). Sara and her friends even have to take a speedboat to get to her place. But that’s not before they run into the redneck bayou locals. One of which is way too Abercrombie & Fitch looking to be such a creep. His name is Dennis (Chris Carmack) and it seems he and Sara have a sordid past!

Sara’s friends include people of varying degrees of hotness and handsomeness. Most, however, are of average or below average acting ability. There’s her pre-med guy friend Nick (Dustin Milligan)who just so happens to be attracted to Sara. American Idol runner up Katherine McPhee is there and the token Latina girl and the token Black guy and the skinny goofy guy who somehow thinks he’s a ladies man, and the blonde male model guy (who is literally a male model in the movie). Yes it’s a typical MTV Spring Break down on the lake. Everything is fine until the sharks show up and start eating these folks. There's blood spilt, but nothing too gruesome enough to divert your eyes. This is PG-13 stuff here after all.

Of course after the first attack the best idea would be to not go in the water. But our fearless writers Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg have found a way around that by having not only fishy CGI villains, but human ones as well. Remember I mentioned those creepy locals? They just might have something to do with sharks hanging around in a lake. And it just might have something to do with Shark Week. But why spoil all the fun?

Director David R. Ellis, who is no stranger to chintzy, silly movies like this having directed two Final Destination films and even Snakes on a Plane, scores points mostly for wanting the title of the film to be “Untitled 3D Shark Thriller.” On a technical level he mostly just gets the job done. He places his camera in the usual spots (lots of shark POVs and lots of ogling of tanned female and male skin) and there are some fun uses of that gimmick known these days as 3D. Nothing too spectacular (nothing has yet to best Final Destination 5 this summer) although the “driving to the lake house” montage had some cool depth perception.

Look, here’s the short of it: This is pretty dumb movie. Ok it’s a very dumb movie. You will probably laugh. At it. You may even jump once or twice (yeah I jumped, sue me) and it has some genuinely scary... opening titles. The biggest problem is that it seems to be taking itself a little too seriously. But if you’re paying to see a movie called "Shark Night 3D," you know what you’re getting into. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. GRADE: B-