Friday, April 27, 2012

A Very Long Engagement: Jason Segal and Emily Blunt are Charming in the Overly Long “The Five-Year Engagement”

It seems as though every time a Judd Apatow-produced comedy is released it surpasses the last one. But the last one was “Bridesmaids” which instantly went down in history as one of the best comedies of the decade. It even scored two Oscar nominations; a feat none of the other Apatow comedies could accomplish. A follow-up film couldn’t only seem like a disappointment in comparison, but “The Five-Year Engagement,” even with its over length, manages to be another warm and funny romantic comedy that will have general audiences laughing with delight. The film’s biggest asset is the wonderful pairing of Apatow regular Jason Segal with the hilarious British beauty Emily Blunt. The duo make a winning pair, and over the course of nearly two hours, we root for these people to get married, although by the end, we’re nearly shouting, “Just do it already for God’s sake!”

Jason Segal and his co-writer Nicholas Stroller (who also directed) previously collaborated on “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” That film dealt with the harsh realities of  painful break-up. Here, they tell a story about a couple who keep pushing off their marriage engagement and the strain it causes on their relationship. Segal is Tom, who proposes to his girlfriend Violet (Blunt) at the beginning of the film. They’re happily living in San Francisco and their family is thrilled, well most of them, about the engagement. But Violet gets a letter from the University of Michigan accepting her into their psychology doctorate program. They pick up and move (with Tom leaving behind a great sous chef job) to Michigan, putting off their wedding for two years.

You don’t have to guess that two years quickly turns to five years and Tom and Violet are not yet married. That’s the basic story here as we follow the ups and downs of Tom and Violet’s relationship. Tom can’t find a good job and is forced to work at a local sandwich shop. We get to see a lot of Violet’s psychology program, in which she conducts some pretty hilarious social experiments involving stale donuts. Let’s just say I was craving a donut after the movie; maybe the whole film is just an experiment itself? There’s a lot of stuff here that I found to be rather extraneous and as a result the film feels unnecessarily bloated. It’s like that “unrated cut” you find on DVD these days with twenty minutes of added footage cut back into the movie. Things could have easily been trimmed up, but I appreciate the efforts made to develop these characters and make us care about them. But after awhile you kind just hope they’d fly to Vegas and get it over with.

And what’s an Apatow comedy without some hilarious supporting characters? This film doesn’t feature as many good ones as in the past – no one comes near the performance of Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, but that’s an unfair judgment. Violet’s sister Suzie is played by Community’s Alison Brie, sporting a convincing British accent. She gets knocked up by Tom’s friend Alex (Chris Pratt) and to be honest, I could probably watch an entire movie about this couple too. Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver plays Violet’s mother who doesn’t quite approve of the engagement but insists on getting the wedding done quickly as grandparents “have a tendency to die.” And do they ever. The film rather darkly, but comically, uses the passing away of several grandparents as a way to show the passage of time.  There are some other darkly comic moments which I’d rather not spoil here, but there are plenty of standout laugh out loud moments amongst the drama being played out.

“The Five-Year Engagement” is a good film, however flawed it may be. It could have used some trimming sure, but Tom and Violet’s characters and relationship are so well developed it’s almost disturbing. I’m sure some will find the meandering third act to be sort of slog to sit through, but overall the film was funny and enjoyable and surprising. If you’re a fan of these movies, you’ll find something in here to love.  GRADE: B

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Cabin Fever: “The Cabin in the Woods” is an Insult to Horror Fans Everywhere

What is a huge horror fan supposed to think of a movie that mocks the genre that’s made by people who have never worked in the genre before? I would trust Wes Craven or Kevin Williamson in this regards. And as big a fan base as Joss Whedon has, having created the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” TV show (and the movie it was based on) is not enough for me to buy a whacked out premise that entirely makes fun of a genre that I know all too well. “Scream” successfully found a balance between horror and satire over 15 years ago in “Scream” but “The Cabin in the Woods” follows a different story. You’ve seen it before: a few attractive coeds go away for a weekend getaway in the woods, and proceed to be killed off by the zombies they unwittingly unleashed upon the earth. Except this time, there’s a reason why this is all happening. Someone is controlling things. Think “The Truman Show” meets “The Evil Dead.” And while that idea might sound fascinating on paper, in reality it makes for a rather hokey movie that never quite congeals. This movie is less homage and more insult to anyone who really enjoys the horror genre. You can get much more out of films like “Scream,” “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” and “Funny Games” then you can out of “The Cabin in the Woods.” And if you want something that is a great mix of comedy and blood-n-guts, check out “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” which takes all of you expectations about the “teens in the woods” plotline and turns it upside down – in a way that isn’t discourteous to its fan base.

Obviously Whedon and his co-conspirator (and the director) Drew Goddard have seen enough horror flicks to be able to see the clichés. But I’m not sure they know the genre well enough to explore it in a way that Kevin Williamson was able to do with “Scream.” They follow the formula to a T, including five cliché ridden and uninteresting characters.. You don’t care about them, just like in every other movie this movie is supposed to be skewering. Chris Hemsworth is the “jock” Curt, and traditional good looks aside he’s a rather bland actor. Kristen Connolly is the “virgin” and she’s rather bland too – you remember her as “woman reading on bench” in the eye-roll inducing “The Happening.” Anna Hutchinson is Jules the “slut” – you know the one who bares her breasts and then quickly meets her maker. “Scream” was smart enough to not show single bare breast – and the one character who actually had sex was the virginal one! The “smart guy” is Holden, played by Jesse Williams from “Grey’s Anatomy.” And the most obnoxious character of them all is of course, the “stoner guy” Marty played by Fran Kranz. These five unlikely friends set off to spend a weekend in Curt’s family’s cabin in the woods. Why anyone would decide to go to a rundown cabin in the woods for a weekend is beyond me. But remember someone is “controlling” these kids to do exactly what they want. Who these “controllers” are is something you’ll have to be patient in finding out. And frankly, the payoff is not nearly as satisfying - or intelligent - as you might expect. After all were talking about the guy who wrote “Alien: Resurrection” - completely well known for it’ intelligent story. NOT.

The biggest problem with “The Cabin in the Woods” is that any chance at scary moments are ruined once the film cuts to the characters controlling the college kids. They’re played by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. They have corny lines of dialogue that some people found funny – but I found completely out of place. Is this movie a comedy or a horror movie or what? I did enjoy a fun cameo appearance later in the film, but by that point the film becomes too hokey, silly, and downright stupid; my forehead hurt from being slapped so much. There’s not much more that can be said without ruining the entire experience. Which would probably be a good thing.

“The Cabin in the Woods” is sort of a misfire. It’s a film that thinks it’s wildly original and innovative but is way too insulting to its core audience. It makes fun of the conventions found in these films and yet it doesn’t do anything to change them. It's more mockery than homage. It’s a horror film for people who don’t like horror films, which explains why those stuffy film critics have been praising it. Any true hardcore horror fan will appreciate what it’s trying to do, I did, I swear – but will realize that, like the characters in the film, we’re just being duped. GRADE: C

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Iceberg Cometh: James Cameron’s “Titanic” Continues to Entertain Fifteen Years After Setting Sail

James Cameron is a master filmmaker. He can take any subject or genre and give it mass appeal. And when a movie’s primary goal is to entertain the masses Cameron is definitely one of the best. He recently made an epic film about blue aliens and made it thrilling, enthralling, and artful. He did the same thing in 1997 with the tragic story of the RMS Titanic disaster from way back in 1912. It was the movie to see back in 1997 and the people came in droves, making it the highest grossing film of all time (until it was sunk yet again, this time by Cameron's own “Avatar”). “Titanic” remains an expertly crafted and minutely detailed account of the Titanic’s sinking and a romantic story of two star-crossed lovers. Sure some say it’s just “Romeo and Juliet” on a boat, but it remains to this day, as one of the best and one of the most popular films of all time, winning 11 Academy Awards in the process. And now it’s back on the big screen, in 3D no less.

If anyone can find any fault with Titanic it’s probably the film’s mildly subpar screenplay written by Cameron himself. Some lines of dialogue are cheesy (“My mother saw him as an insect, a dangerous insect which must be squashed quickly,” older Rose proclaims.) And some scenes are just sort of awkward, including Jack teaching Rose how to “spit like a man.” The Academy agreed, snubbing Cameron in the Best Original Screenplay category that year (Don’t fret, he walked away with three Oscars that night). The film sort of awkwardly uses a present day framing device and a MacGuffin (a greedy shipwreck explorer played by Bill Paxton is looking for a famous jewel, The Heart of the Ocean, which supposedly was part of the Titanic wreckage), which basically just gave Cameron an excuse to explore the ship’s real wreckage and integrate the footage into the movie. And old woman named Rose (Gloria Stuart), who survived the tragedy, accounts her experience on the famous ship - which consisted of a love affair with a poor guy.

If a weaker screenplay is Titanic’s only real fault, it makes up for it in nearly every other cinematic area. The performances are simply exquisite. Kate Winslet singlehandedly cemented her wonderful American acting career in the role of Rose Dewitt Bukater. She plays a rich woman who longs for something more in life. It’s refreshing to see a woman in this time period who’d rather slum it with a poor guy than discuss finances at teatime. And Leonardo DiCaprio, as the good-at-poker steerage passenger Jack Dawson, sailed into the hearts of nearly every teenage girl on the entire planet. “Titanic” was a movie that made movie stars and even though DiCaprio was not nominated for his performance, he has come to be regarded as one of the best actors of his generation.

It is Cameron’s minute details that can really make a viewer appreciate why “Titanic” is such a terrific film. Nearly all the characters (besides Jack and Rose and her family) are real-life people who were actual passengers on the ship. We meet the captain and even the ship’s builder. And the famous “Unsinkable” Molly Brown (played here by the always wonderful Kathy Bates) makes an appearance and even helps Jack fit in with Rose and her rich, stuck up family. Just look at the film and you can witness its opulence. Cameron actually built a smaller replica of the entire ship, which helped the film’s budget bubble wildly out of control. But you can see all the great attention to detail in the film’s glorious production design. And look at the costumes and make-up. The film gets every period detail perfect, down to every button and seam. And the fact that the film mixes eye-popping visual effects with this period detail makes the film one of a kind. The first half of the film works as an opulent drama that introduces us to the world of the Titanic and its passengers, while the film’s second half works as a balls-to-the wall action flick as the passengers try to avoid succumbing to the Atlantic Ocean’s deathly cold temperatures (James Horner’s haunting score helps sell the emotion). It also features plenty of Cameron’s trademark steely blue lighting (let’s thank cinematographer Russell Carpenter). Of course, the less said about the sort of out-of-nowhere gun chase the better.

“Titanic” is a glorious film. The new 3D version still retains the wonder that I experienced fifteen years ago. It’s not the most amazing 3D I’ve ever seen since it wasn’t made that way, but Cameron can do no wrong in my opinion. The film is lavish and luxurious just like the Titanic itself. It has romance and it has action. I see it as one of the greatest disaster-action flicks of all time. It’s a genre blockbuster and yet it retains intimate drama. It appeals to women and men and offers so much of what we go to the movies for in the first place. It’s a visual wonder to behold and even with a run-time of over three hours, the film moves along swiftly. It certainly puts the motion in motion picture and remains one of the ultimate movie theater going experiences. GRADE: A