Archive for February, 2011
If you are a fan of the old school Farrelly Brothers films such as “Dumb & Dumber” or “There’s Something About Mary,” you are in for a treat with “Hall Pass.” The filmmakers pledged a return of toilet humor and juvenile stunts in their latest comedy, and the film delivers as promised. After toning it down a notch for “Shallow Hal” and “Stuck on You,” the brothers are back with a vengeance, putting a new spin on a familiar narrative.
The plot is a week in the lives of two white-bread suburban couples, Rick and Maggie (Owen Wilson and Jenna Fischer), and Fred and Grace (Jason Sudeikis and Christina Applegate) and the daily struggles they face as husbands and wives. The marital conflict at first is actually quite trivial. The men talk innocently amongst friends about what they would pay for a weekend with a Hawaiian Tropic girl – with the caveat that it didn’t hurt their wives feelings — and the women denounce their husbands’ wandering eyes. When a doctor companion recommends to the women the idea of giving their husbands a hall pass — one week without the constraints of marriage — as a cure to fix their marital woes, hijinks ensue and lessons are inevitably learned. As the men fumble and bumble in their attempts to meet women, the ladies somehow end up in the middle of a week-long party for a summer league college baseball team, winding up in their own extra-marital affairs.
The story is quite familar to the film world and could have been told as a drama without the Farrelly influence. Both couples quit trying to keep the romance alive in their marriage. The men romanticize about their single days while the women resent the lack of attention from their husbands. However the distinctive Farrelly brand brings with it plenty of laugh out loud moments, including another classic bathroom moment, a somewhat uncomfortable nude hot tub scene, and some fantastic minor characters.
Perhaps it is because I am a married man in my mid-30′s, but I found the depiction of the husbands almost too over-the-top. Given the 40-something age of Wilson and 35-year old Sudeikis, adding a layer of practicality and intelligence to the characters would have made them more likeable and the audience more appreciative of their plight. While the filmmakers utilized trademark off-color humor and visual gags in the movie, it is a bit insulting to viewers that they still felt the need to make the characters so in-your-face ignorant. The wives, especially a usually charming Fischer, were equally as clueless. This film could have served as an opportunity to marry the filmmakers two most recent styles, yet they obviously chose to revert back to their old ways.
Despite the flaws in character development, “Hall Pass” is what it set out to be — a raunchy, hilarious look at the lives middle-aged men often think they could still lead if still single, the wives who put up with their shenanigans, and the wacky friends that tag along for the ride. Life is supposed to be fun. Marriage is supposed to be enjoyable, albeit messy sometimes. These are the messages the Farrelly Brothers attempt to pass along in the film, in their own unconventional way.
Though nothing about the past filmography of Bobby and Peter Farrelly (most notably “There’s Something About Mary” and “Dumb And Dumber”) suggests a knack for subtlety, it’s rather sad to see that to “Hall Pass,” the brothers’ latest creation, seems to boil down the institution of marriage to a sole characteristic: the wearing of absolutely terrible shirts.
Okay, maybe it’s a little more than that. But on a superficial level (which “Hall Pass” rarely delves past), it’s difficult to ignore that while Maggie and Grace, the wives in this tale (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate, both of which seem a joy to spend a life with) are afforded the luxury of fashionable outfits, Fred (Jason Sudekis) and Rick (Owen Wilson)’s wardrobe consists entirely of ill-advised cargo shirts and an inexhaustible supply of plaid button-downs.
It’s interesting to imagine the characters in a Farrelly world as well-rounded adults, and “Hall Pass” still seems like a no-man’s-land between the man-children currently populating Judd Apatow movies and actual human beings. Its opinion of the “grown-up” world oscillates between flat mockery and surprisingly warm moments, though it’s worth noting that at a point, the plot completely forgets about Maggie and Rick’s children, sending them off to a mysterious location where they’re hopefully supervised until thrown back into dialogue at the film’s end.
Owen Wilson is ostensibly the star of the picture, yet seems half-asleep during many of his scenes. Meanwhile, my continuing quest for a good Jason Sudekis vehicle continues; I can only hope something appears before he’s forced into a feature-length “Saturday Night Live” misstep. Both Fischer and Applegate make themselves comfortable within their roles, but their respective subplots are largely shunted to the side to make way for a number of repetitive scenes between Wilson and his prospective no-strings hookup.
“Hall Pass” would make a decent double feature with the recent “Date Night,” another story of the effort it can take to keep a marriage from stagnating. But oddly, while last year’s Steve Carell/Tina Fey pairing is chock-full of hijinks from start to finish, “Hall Pass” chooses to cram all the wackiness in the final 20 minutes — a decision that leaves the film feeling unbalanced and ultimately unsuccessful.
In honor of the upcoming 83rd annual Academy Awards, this week’s films were chosen based on the current nominees for best actor and actress. I went with best actor nominee Jeff Bridges and his 2004 film “The Door in the Floor.” The film, based on the John Irving novel “A Widow for One Year,” is adapted for the screen and directed by Tod Williams (“Paranormal Activity 2″). The framing of the film left me intrigued — the movie left me disappointed. Bridges shines, but it is not enough to overcome a story that lacks intrigue and features apathetic characters.
Years after the deaths of their two sons in a car accident, eccentric children’s author Ted Cole (Bridges) and his wife Marion (Kim Basinger) are failing miserably in an attempt to move past the tragedy. The strain on their marriage leaves Ted promiscuous and Marion struggling as a mother to new daughter Ruth (Elle Fanning). When 16-year old writing student Eddie (Jon Foster) — who bears a striking resemblance to one of the Cole’s sons — arrives as Ted’s summer assistant, he is used as a pawn to spark change in the Cole’s stale and failing relationship. Ted has little interest in mentoring Eddie, instead exploiting him as a chauffeur, part-time nanny and new lover for his estranged wife.
The plot lacks a beginning and end, instead serving as a a brief glimpse into the drama of the Cole family over the span of one summer, devoid of any real anticipation, climax or resolution. The disclosure of the details of the accident that killed their two sons is teased throughout the entire film, yet the final reveal falls short. It is tragic, yes, but nothing that lives up to the film’s tag line, “the most dangerous secrets are the ones we’re afraid to tell ourselves.” During the film, intelligent characters continue to make poor choices. The couple is being torn apart by the tragedy that haunts them, yet their home serves as a shrine to their dead sons, with dozens of photos of the boys adorning the walls. And Ted seems to know exactly what he’s doing by pushing his young assistant towards his wife, yet is still upset when she decides to leave him.
The fateful accident that tore this family apart is the antagonist in “The Door in the Floor,” yet the director gives only cryptic hints at what happened with flashbacks that appear so briefly during the film that they fail to garner any real traction. Not fully knowing the antagonist makes it hard to relate with a protagonist and his or her struggle. Perhaps revealing the details of the accident that haunts the Coles at the onset of the film would give the audience more of a reason to empathize with the family. Instead, we are teased with the buildup of a mystery that never delivers, while investing in the odd behavior of two very bizarre characters.
Even with the plot failings, you would think Bridges and Basinger could save the movie. Poor character development, however, is too much for the veteran actors to overcome. The two are rarely on screen together, and their characters are simply too quirky and despondent to relate with. Bridges’ character is round yet unlikeable, with a penchant for nudity and vulgar rap music. Basinger as the distraught mother is disappointingly flat. Instead of fleshing out Ted Cole, the director spends most of the film reminding us how eccentric he is. Meanwhile, Marion spends her days of eternal mourning by getting dressed up in expensive clothes and wandering around the Hamptons alone.
In the end it is Bridges portrayal of Ted Cole that makes this film memorable. The only difference between Cole and “True Grit’s” Rooster Cogburn or “Crazy Heart’s” Bad Blake is a redeeming resolution. What Bridges brings to the table as an actor and infuses in each role is a genuine vulnerability that lies just beneath the surface. It lends credibility to the struggles of the characters he portrays, and it is what makes him worthy of past and present Academy Award recognition.
In the continuing spirit of awards season, Travis and I agreed to each tackle a “classic” in the past of a current Academy Award contender. My pick is a two-fer: 1996’s “The American President,” which features 2011 nominees Annette Bening (Best Actress for “The Kids Are All Right”) and Aaron Sorkin (Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Social Network”).
For the sake of honesty, I have to admit that as an unspeakably avid fan of “The West Wing,” it takes quite a bit of mental stamina to switch from one Sorkin-built White House to another. But the blending of this script’s trademark verbosity — it might be the ultimate Aaron Sorkin style-primer — a more traditional romantic comedy story structure gives the film more than enough distinction as a terrific modern fairy tale of sorts. Director Rob Reiner (who previously teamed with Sorkin for the film adaptation of “A Few Good Men”) brings the light touch he successfully applied in “When Harry Met Sally…”, and the pairing works better than anyone might imagine.
The film opens on the jubilant staff in the White House of President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), who are sitting on a 63% approval rating and on the verge of pushing through a piece of crime legislation that, while rather toothless, is primed to launch their reelection campaign. The only dissenting voice is that of Michael J. Fox (in a larval stage of what would become the Bradley Whitford character on “TWW”), and the lone issue left for the administration to tackle is a bill cracking down on fossil fuel emissions, seemingly doomed from the outset. (15 years down the line, it’s more than a little depressing to hear that according to 1996’s environmental lobby, automobiles should have been all-electric for some time now.)
It is through this that our lovers have their meet-cute: political hired gun Sydney Ellen Wade (Bening, utterly charming) is surprised mid-rant by the President, who spends the rest of the film attempting to get Sydney to love “Andy,” rather than the Commander-In-Chief. At one point, he tells her that he’s “just a guy asking a girl out to dinner.” In the background of the shot, the Marine One helicopter waits on the White House lawn to whisk him away. He grills A.J., his Chief Of Staff (Martin Sheen) as to whether she mentions him in conversation; Sheen then replies with one of the best line deliveries present: “No sir, but I could pass her a note before study hall.”
Though Aaron Sorkin’s writing is easy enough to mimic and poke fun at — the walk-and-talks, a few Gilbert and Sullivan references tossed in here and there — his importance as a screenwriter is undeniable if only because of the sheer gravity placed on the spoken word in all of his projects. The climaxes in both “The American President” and “The Social Network,” not to mention a good 3/4 of his time spent on “The West Wing” are all blistering dialogue scenes — a policy speech or a legal deposition, for example. This movie derives all its tension from whether or not Shepard will ever find it in himself to go off-book and speak truthfully, while the actual political maneuverings are left vague.
Both Douglas and Bening handle the intro’s speedy back-and-forth well, with Bening managing to pull off a 30s screwball character nicely for some time. Reiner seems to sense when the talking needs to be halted, and a scene where the couple share their first dance — in front of foreign royalty, no less — is as swoon-worthy as one could ever hope. It’s through this combination of sheer romanticism — of U.S. government as well as actual love — and finely crafted word work that allows “The American President” to remain as striking as it ever was.
If John Hughes had chosen to make Cameron Frye the focus of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” instead of Ferris, it would have looked something like “It’s Kind of a Funny Story.” I should admit, I love a good coming of age story, so in my bias I let this film off the hook for the contrived storytelling that I railed Sanctum for. And that is exactly what this film is — a lighthearted coming of age tale — albeit over the span of just five days.
Co-directed by Anna Boden (Sugar) and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, HBO’s In Treatment), the film is predictable yet inspiring thanks to a strong focus on the characters and their relationships. Depressed teen Craig (Keir Gilchrest) checks himself into a mental hospital after the pressures of teen life leave him with suicidal thoughts. Thanks to a plot-convenient renovation of the teen ward, Craig finds himself in the adult ward, where there is – surprise!– only one other teen, a girl (Emma Roberts) that just happens to be his age. Though the two strike up a meaningful friendship, it is Craig’s relationship with Bobby (Zach Galifinakis) that serves as the soul of the film. In his relationship with Bobby, Craig discovers what the adult version of himself would look like if he continues wallowing in his own depression. Galifinakis was a terrific casting choice for the character, and he looked comfortable stepping out of his usual comedy-sidekick role.
The filmmakers use a series of narrated cutaways and freeze-frames throughout the film to help advance the narrative outside the walls of the mental ward. Each scene features it’s own unique feel, including footage shot with an 8mm home movie camera, animation, and a horror genre spoof. Though creative, these continuous scenes become somewhat distracting from what’s happening inside the hospital. Music also plays a prominent role in the story, and the diverse soundtrack — from hip hop to Arabic folk music — serves as a representation of all the distinct individual ethos you would expect to find in a mental ward.
My only real complaint is that the filmmakers seem to show their hand too early for one character while completely folding on another. When Craig’s resolution becomes fairly obvious early in the film, the audience finds itself in the middle of a rare mid-film protagonist shift, drawn more to the mysterious backstory of Bobby as the conclusion nears. But unlike Craig, the film leaves Bobby’s fate completely ambiguous. While this type of ending is often hit or miss, I feel the audience is asked to invest enough emotionally in Bobby’s character to be given a proper resolution.
There have been some comparisons with this film and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but after the fact that both films take place in a mental ward, the similarities end. Here, the hospital patients are completely harmless and often times loveable, the hospital itself is ridiculously easy to sneak out of, and the relationships are built on trust, not rebellion. Despite Craig’s improbable ability to check himself into the ward at age sixteen, I recommend you stick around to see what happens next. Perhaps because we can all relate in some fashion to teen angst, you’ll likely find yourself excusing the film for its misgivings, and embracing the journey it represents.
“It’s Kind Of A Funny Story” comes perilously close to the worst fate a movie can have — making itself completely unmemorable, a film that conjures up the same vague feelings as its lackluster title.
Craig (Keir Gilchrist) is bogged down in a number of high-school level stresses: he has a big application due, he feels inadequate in the midst of a field of accelerated students, he’s in love with his best friend’s girlfriend — there’s always a girl problem involved. Despite the support he receives from his family (Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan, who barely appear, but bring a touch of sweetness with them when they do), he calls a mental health hotline to report suicidal feelings. He enters the hospital, and is aghast to discover that an adult psychology ward actually contains — gasp — crazy people.
As for the film’s treatment of the psych ward patients, I remain on the fence. Placing Craig in the midst of genuinely troubled people points out the relative silliness of his angst, yet the script seems undecided as to whether we’re intended to fully dislike its protagonist. Gilchrist isn’t without screen presence, but he can do nothing to animate his flat character.
This confusion is then combined with the cliché use of the life-affirming kooky friend, Bobby (Zach Galifianakis). The five-day period the film spans finds both of them attempting to secure a footing in the world, once they leave the hospital. Here, Galifianakis joins the rank of actors who give incredible performances in the midst of mediocre films. Every second he’s onscreen is captivating, and every moment he’s gone brings “It’s Kind Of A Funny Story” to a stagnant halt.
Though the machinations of the plot — excuse me, “coincidence,” teens have been placed among the adult residents of the hospital. And of course by “teens,” I refer to a single beautiful girl (Emma Roberts), whose backstory hints that she might be a far more interesting focal point for the film.
Indeed, it’s the lack of a captivating center that roots “It’s Kind Of A Funny Story” as solidly bland. Co-writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck previously crafted the stellar “Half-Nelson,” so there’s no question they’re familiar with fascinatingly damaged people at a movie’s heart. Somehow, that ability is missing here, and thus the movie is notable only for housing some of Galifianakis’ finest work to date.
At its core, the 2D version of Sanctum is your standard paint-by-numbers action flick that will leave you entertained but wanting just a bit more. The film is based on Australian underwater explorer Andrew Wight’s story of leading an exploration team out of a cave after the entrance collapsed. Once you get past the hurried attempt to create a back story and conflict between protagonists — you may find yourself saying along with the rest of the audience, “we get it, you hate your father!” — the heart of the film reveals itself as a semi-suspenseful journey of survival in harsh unknown conditions.
Director Alister Grierson (Kokoda) takes us deep into an undiscovered cave system in the South Pacific, where a veteran exploration team has visions of the National Geographic cover. Despite state of the art technology indicating a severe storm barreling down on the cave, the team still manages to get caught with their wet suits down when the storm blocks their exit from the cave, turning the exploration into a race for survival.
Sanctum is loaded with stock characters that include a pompous expedition financier (Ioan Gruffudd), the hardened veteran explorer (Richard Roxburgh), his estranged son (Rhys Wakefield), and the stubborn girlfriend (Alice Parkinson) who consistently ignores pleas for common sense – such as refusing to wear a wetsuit in frigid water because its previous owner is now dead. The buildup is predictable thanks to lines that fail miserably at the art of subtle foreshadowing – including “what could possibly go wrong diving in a cave?” and “I’m not going to let this cave beat me!” Both lines are uttered in the film’s first ten minutes. The only unpredictable element here is what genre the film falls under, as it attempts to cram all of the major genres into 109 celluloid minutes. You may find it hard to connect with characters during genuine heartwarming scenes when they constantly toss out cheesy one-liners. And when those heartfelt moments do occur, they typically fall short. Father and son finally bond over a poetry lesson while rock climbing in the caves.
One break from the traditional narrative is that the antagonist in Sanctum isn’t a person, but rather Mother Nature and the crew’s dwindling supplies. Living up to the tag line “The only way out is down,” Grierson does a nice job of drawing the audience in with claustrophobic cinematic squeezes and underwater exploration shots where up is down and left is right. Tension continues to build as the team’s basic necessities – oxygen, light, and food – run out. Be ready for a powerful scene that will elicit a collective groan among the audience.
Two caveats are important to note when watching a movie of Sanctum’s ilk. The trend in Hollywood is to attach a producer’s name to a project, despite the fact that most of the artistic vision is coming from the director or cinematographer. “James Cameron’s Sanctum” is a tad misleading, as it was directed by Grierson, with Cameron serving as executive producer. Those familiar with and expecting a Cameron epic will no doubt be disappointed. Also, anytime you see the phrase “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events,” take it with a grain of salt, and know you’re getting the augmented Hollywood version of the tale. In the end it all depends on how you choose to view the film. As a drama, Sanctum comes off a bit shallow, but as an action-adventure, it delivers the goods, however contrived the story may be.
In the heat of awards season, those few months where high quality films are dissected and ranked non-stop, a flick like “Sanctum” may actually be quite welcome. Here is a movie almost entirely free of enjoyable aspects of any kind. The starring roles are played by rocks, all of them with more energy and likeability than any of the actors present.
The production of “Sanctum” is headed up by Andrew Wight, the caver who lived the harrowing onscreen events. This makes it hard to doubt the veracity of the plot, though I hope to god there was no actual moment where a cocky explorer uttered the damning line “What could possibly go wrong?” And yet in a time when “127 Hours” made being motionless under a rock compelling, this exceedingly-mobile tale of adventure is lifeless enough that my main concern eventually became how pruny the fingers of the cast must have been.
Josh (Rhys Wakefield) is forever at odds with his perpetually gruff father (Richard Roxburgh, previously brought to my attention as the villainous Duke in “Moulin Rouge!”, of all things). This is discussed for an agonizing 30 minutes or so before a massive tropical storm traps them, their familial issues, and several other explorers of various stripes within an intricate cave system that must be escaped from. It doesn’t take long to realize that since there are only a handful of noteworthy personalities down there, the remaining time is merely a waiting game for the less-photogenic ones to be picked off.
What I will grant “Sanctum” is that when its visuals are on, they’re incredibly beautiful. The natural world lends itself to 3D far better than anything, making this one of the few films I’ve seen to utilize the medium well. Coming from the wheelhouse of executive producer James Cameron (whose interest in underwater filming has only increased since his time with “Titanic”) the post-production team is able to provide a sense of depth — much like they previously did in, of course, “Avatar” — without needing to have objects flying off the screen.
However, when director Alister Grierson attempts to stage the many amphibious action scenes within the maze of caves, an extra dimension can’t hide the shoddy and often inexplicably complicated editing choices. “Sanctum” completely drops plot points that are of the utmost importance earlier in the film — we’re warned about hypothermia setting in without a wetsuit, about the need to avoid decompression sickness, both things that rear their heads when dramatically convenient only to be forgotten about a scene later.
As a decidedly non-explorer type myself, there were times when the motivation behind the plot escaped me. But upon the movie’s closing, I felt oddly connected with the cavers — a great mental weight was immediately lifted from me and I could hardly wait to see the outside world.