Archive for July, 2012
REVIEW: Predictable ‘Watch’ offers singular plotline with a few laughs us
One of my students once told me that taking my course ruined film for her. After a semester of analyzing the cinematic language, she found herself dissecting every film she watched scene by scene. I reminded her that it’s quite alright (and sometimes necessary) to turn the analytical part of your brain off and just mindlessly watch a movie. After several weeks of intense films that included “Savages” and “Rampage,” I was ready to change gears to something a little lighter. New in theatres this week is the “The Watch” — a sci-fi action comedy with the promise of some much needed vacuous humor to take my mind off these crazy times we live in.
When one of his employees is mysteriously killed, Costco manager Evan (Ben Stiller) forms a neighborhood watch to help the local inept law enforcement solve the case. Neighborhood misfits Bob (Vince Vaughn), Franklin (Jonah Hill) and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade) join the cause, and the group stumbles upon an alien plot that threatens the entire world. Housed underneath the very Costco he manages, Evan and his watch partners must confront the aliens in an effort to save the planet.
“The Watch” is a mix of comedy styles and film genres, with some gags hitting and others missing. It is surprisingly vulgar at times, complete with alien fellatio and bodily fluid gags. Even with a re-write that changed the plot from teen-oriented to adult themed, the juvenile fingerprints remain. Many times you will hear someone say the best parts of a film are given away during the trailer. This has never been truer than with “The Watch.” It’s nice to get the full context of the gaffe, but if you’ve seen the trailer it almost feels like you’re watching the movie for a second or even third time.
The casting is hit or miss, with the best performances coming from unlikely places. Both Stiller and Vaughn play roles they’ve done many times in the past. In fact, if you look up the definition of typecast in the dictionary, you’ll likely find a picture of Vince Vaughn. It’s not so much that he isn’t funny, but his shtick is very played out. Comedy actor/writer/director Richard Ayoade is a relative newcomer compared to his counterparts, and surprisingly more than holds his own. Perhaps it is his unassuming delivery, but I find everything Jonah Hill says funny. Will Forte is hilarious in a minor role as Sgt. Bressman, and veteran TV actor Mel Rodriguez shines without saying a word of dialogue as Forte’s partner, Chucho.
If “The Watch” ends up a box office bomb (and early numbers indicate it will be), several factors can be blamed. The Trayvon Martin incident led producers to change the title (originally titled “Neighborhood Watch”) and marketing materials. The theater shooting in Colorado took place a week before the film’s open, leaving many people leery of theaters. Lastly, the film is competing with an event that comes along once every four years — the Summer Olympics. If there was ever an equation for a box office bust, this would be it.
“The Watch” has its funny moments — how could it not with Stiller, Hill and Vaughn? But it is also extremely predictable with a singular plotline. My wife and I like to hastily put films into the categories of “gotta see that” or “eh, that’s a rental,” and I now feel the need to create a new category for “The Watch.” It is a “catch it on cable when you’re home sick curled up on the couch.” It requires little, if any, thought from the audience, and yet is still good for a few laughs.
REVIEW: ‘Rampage’ offers look at real life news around us
In the face of the unspeakable tragedy that occurred last week in Aurora, Colo., at the Batman premiere, we are left with one question: “Why?” I’ve said on several occasions in the “Film School” blog that film can serve as a cultural mirror, so it makes sense that our society often points the finger at popular mediums such as music and film when looking for someone or something to blame. But what if the medium is almost a carbon copy of the tragedy? That is the case with this week’s DVD review, “Rampage.” Written and directed by Uwe Boll (best known for his cinematic adaptations of video games such as the “BloodRayne” series), the fictional narrative documents a man dressed in full body armor committing a massive killing spree in a small Oregon town.
Bill Williamson, 23, is working a dead-end job, living in his parent’s basement, and going nowhere. A series of events — his parents kicking him out and several contentious confrontations throughout the day — is the catalyst for putting his deadly plan into action. Dressed from head to toe in body armor, Bill goes on an unprecedented killing spree that begins at a police station and continues at random through the downtown of his small town. Looking for salvation, what Bill finds instead leads to a frightening conclusion — a dangerous killer on the loose with a thirst for more blood.
Though made in 2009, “Rampage” is eerily similar to the present-day story unfolding in Colorado. The protagonist is a 23-year old college dropout who goes on a killing spree with automatic weapons in full body armor. Though the events in the film are on a more grandiose scale, the parallels are striking. I don’t know if it’s safe to call Boll prophetic, as many of his films deal with themes of violence and revenge. Rather what this film does is strengthen the theory that the film medium truly is a reflection of society, whether scripting events torn from our news headlines or quenching our thirst for violence.
The film is rather unconventional. The cast is made up of mostly unknown actors and the script is largely improvised. Canadian indie film and TV actor Brendan Fletcher offers a Christian Slater-esque performance as the steel-eyed killer. Shaun Sipos (“Happy in the Valley”) conjures up images of a young Brad Pitt as Evan, Bill’s idealistic friend whose relevance grows with each minute of the film. Though heavy with improvisation, the dialogue does occasionally come off as contrived, specifically with Bill’s parents.
“Rampage” uses documentary-style cinematography and editing that includes handheld camera work and long takes, complete with the camera rolling long after the subject leaves the screen. It creates a unique viewing experience that works well, turning the small budget film into more of a reality TV feel. It’s rather chilling verisimilitude given the context in which I viewed the film.
Much like these tragedies that seem to occur all too often, “Rampage” leaves us looking for answers. Does Bill really believe he is acting on behalf of society? Or is it simply the frustration from a wasted life reaching a boiling point? For a small budget film, Boll does a fantastic job with effects, but that’s mostly what “Rampage” amounts to. More flash than substance, the film fails to address the real issue — what could possibly lead a person to commit such a horrific murderous act? Though he drops teases throughout the film, Boll had the time in the lengthy exposition to explore deeper societal issues. Instead of offering any hypothetical answers, “Rampage” unloads as a violent trip where you are the primary observer in the eye of a raging storm of bullets and death.
REVIEW: ’25 Hill’ fun ride, unique introduction to world of Soap Box Derby racing
After the recent Independence Day festivities that mark the heart of summer, I thought it was fitting to celebrate independent film with this week’s review. New to DVD this month is “25 Hill,” an inspirational family drama with Soap Box Derby racing as a backdrop. The film is somewhat of a passion project for actor Corbin Bernsen, who produced the film in an effort to create family-friendly cinema while raising interest in a competition that dates back to the 1930s. Rooted in reality, Bernsen came up with the concept after reading an article about the financial hard times facing the All-American Soap Box Derby organization.
When the father of 12-year old Trey Caldwell (Nathan Gamble, “Dolphin Tale”) is killed while serving in Afghanistan, Trey’s life grinds to a halt. This includes the half-finished Soap Box Derby car the two were building together. Trey’s school principal pairs him with gruff firefighter Roy Gibbs (Corbin Bernsen, TV’s “Psych”) and the two begin an unlikely friendship that culminates at the national Soap Box Derby championship. Through their tumultuous friendship, Trey and Roy discover that their journey means much more to their healing than wins and trophies.
Casting for an independent film is perhaps more important than in a large studio projects because so much depends on the story. With minimal special effects and practical locations, the indy film experience is more intimate and allows you to easily connect with the characters. In addition to writing and directing the film, Bernsen stars as the rugged firefighter battling his own demons — specifically alcohol abuse and a crumbling faith in the country his son gave his life for. Nathan Gamble’s performance drives the narrative, and he wins you over with every scene. His insightful commentary and witty delivery conjures up memories of Juno MacGuff from “Juno.” Veteran TV and film actor Maureen Flannigan continues to shed the character she’s probably best renowned for (Evie Garland in TV’s “Out of This World”) as Maggie, the Caldwell family matriarch struggling to keep the family together in the face of her own grief. A minor character that you just can’t get enough of comes from do-it-all actor/producer/radio host Rolanda Watts, who radiates warmth as Mrs. Banner, Nathan’s principal and quasi-spiritual guide for the Caldwell family.
“25 Hill” is an ambitious project for an independent film with a budget of around a million dollars. Bernsen makes the most of his available resources, including sweeping crane shots and locations like the Derby Downs in Akron, Ohio, that give the film a big budget feel. The race sequences are fast-paced and feature creative shots from multiple angles, including the front of the Soap Box Derby cars as they speed down the track. The only miss by Bernsen is not taking more time to explore other fertile plot areas such as Maggie’s struggles with losing her husband or deeper exploration into Roy’s bitterness toward the country and the events that took his son’s life. The focus of the film never drifts far from the soap box storyline, despite grazing serious subject matter like alcoholism, 9/11 and the current war in Afghanistan.
I often talk to my students about the different ways you can analyze film — one of which is viewing it as a cultural reference point. Cinema can serve as a window to the soul of a culture by offering a reflection of its inherent morals and values. In a time where so much violence dominates the cinematic landscape, “25 Hill” serves as a refreshing alternative — which is truly one of the tenets of independent film. The DVD also offers special features that highlight the actual All-American Soap Box Derby. There is a prognostic element to the film as the present day derby has also fallen on hard times financially, and the attention brought on by the film has helped bring some much-needed publicity to the organization. The movie is heavy on faith (“faith and courage” is an ongoing theme) but in a subtle way (as opposed to, you know, Kirk Cameron’s in-your-face style). After a limited theatrical release, the movie is now available on DVD and easy to find online from sellers like Wal-Mart, Amazon, and Best Buy. Support the indy film effort by picking up a copy of “25 Hill” today. It’s a fun ride and a unique introduction to the somewhat unfamiliar world of Soap Box Derby racing.
REVIEW: “Savages” an almost gem as it lacks character development
New in theaters this week is a film that seems to have flown under the radar a bit despite a brilliant director, tremendous cast and unique plot. I’m talking about Oliver Stone’s new film, “Savages.” Stone is one of the most accomplished directors on the planet, with distinct styles matched only by his diverse filmography that includes “JFK,” “Platoon” and the “Wall Street” series. He continues his trend of films that focus on controversy and topical cultural issues as “Savages” dives into the world of illegal cannabis production and the war on drugs in the U.S. and Mexico.
Best friends Chon (Taylor Kitsch, “John Carter”) and Ben (Aaron Johnson, “Kick-Ass”) share one of the top independent cannabis farms in California, as well as the love of the same woman, Ophelia (Blake Lively, TV’s “Gossip Girl”). The three are living it up on top of the world until they are approached by the Mexican Baha drug cartel. After refusing to go into business with the violent cartel, the Mexicans force their hand by kidnapping Ophelia. Severely outmanned, the two must use every resource at their disposal to rescue Ophelia and free themselves from the oppression of the cartel.
While it is hard to break new ground in film today, “Savages” offers up a stylistic look not seen from Stone since “Natural Born Killers,” which was groundbreaking for its time (1994). Though the plot is unique, it is somewhat predictable and has plenty of holes. It’d not quite paint-by-numbers, but you never get the sense that the protagonists are in any real danger. After being portrayed as intelligent, savvy businessmen and entrepreneurs, Chon and Ben make some questionable decisions that seem to exist strictly to move the plot along, which robs the film of some verisimilitude.
Ophelia, or “O” as she is referred to throughout the film, narrates the majority of the movie. From the opening scene to the film’s resolution, O introduces us to literally every single character as well as locations and character rationale. The problem is that this isn’t really O’s story to tell; it is Chon and Ben’s. O’s narration is more of a distraction and takes more away from the film than it adds. The fact that O isn’t much of a sympathetic character doesn’t help matters. For example, she makes a high-priced shopping trip a priority despite being knowingly watched by the dastardly Mexicans.
Despite the rare plot miss by Stone, several things still make “Savages” worth watching. The music is as varied as the film’s style and adds a deeper level of meaning to each scene. The film’s exposition — set on the scenic coast of Southern California — features music that gives the film a spring break genre feel rather than the action thriller it really is. Each piece of music adds a genre-inducing layer to sequences that keeps the film fresh, despite the long runtime of 130 minutes.
Every character in “Savages” seems to have an interesting backstory. Unfortunately, these are mostly teased rather than explored, and the audience never connects with any one character — including the protagonists Chon and Ben. We never learn how the bond between crooked DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta) and Chon and Ben was forged, only that Dennis has a wife dying of cancer and she uses Chon and Ben’s powerful cannabis to help with the pain. Could the search to find relief for his dying wife be what caused a DEA agent to get into bed with pot dealers? Baja cartel leader Elena Sanchez (Selma Hayek) has perhaps the richest backstory, from how she came into power to her current state of health, but little is revealed. Instead the film traverses from one exotic location to another, focusing on action over character development. I’m not asking to give away all the mystery in the film, but there is some fertile ground that Stone really missed out on. Benicio del Toro is masterfully evil as Lado, the cartel muscle. He gives Anton Chigurh of “No Country for Old Men” a run for his money as cinema’s best all-time antagonist.
Oliver Stone is talented to the point that I don’t think he could make a bad film if he tried. For all of “Savages” faults, it is still a memorable movie. It has all the staples of a Stone film, full of violence, colorful locations and cultural statements on the never-ending war on drugs. “Savages” could have been a cinematic gem had it focused more on character development and less on action. Nonetheless, if you like the gritty, stylistic motif in Stone’s action films you’ll get a kick out of “Savages.”
REVIEW: ‘Ted’ bold attempt to become the funniest film of 2012
Something happened between my time growing up in the 1970s and today — America decided to start taking itself way too seriously. Thankfully, Seth MacFarlane is here to help. In a super-sensitive world where it seems like anything you say manages to hurt somebody’s feelings somewhere, MacFarlane regularly gets away with offending everyone in his animated franchise “Family Guy.” His foray into motion pictures is no different. “Ted” is a no-holds barred homage to bygone popular culture that cares little about who is offended in its wake. Fans of “Family Guy” will certainly be satisfied, but if you are expecting cute and cuddly, prepare for quite a shock.
A childhood wish comes true for lonely 8-year-old John Bennett when his teddy bear comes to life and becomes his best friend. John and the bear named Ted (MacFarlane) make a pact to remain friends for life, a bond that remains for nearly three decades. Now in his mid-30s and four years into a romantic relationship with Lori (Mila Kunis), John (Mark Wahlberg) is forced to re-evaluate his friendship with Ted. Pulled in different directions, John must choose between Ted’s wild ways or the love of his life.
MacFarlane is masterful in a quick setup and moving past the logic of how Ted comes to be, giving him the fallen child star treatment. After the shine of his novelty act wears off, society is only vaguely interested in Ted, allowing him to blend in with the rest of the world. It is an important rationale that allows Ted to interact as a normal character throughout the rest of the film. The animated bear blends in seamlessly as well, complete with intricate facial expressions, shadows and plenty of physical contact with the actors. Wahlberg and Kunis do a nice job playing off a non-existent co-star with good timing and delivery.
“Ted” is custom made for the 30-something male. In addition to the familiar romance vs. best friend plot, the film is rich with cultural references from our childhoods. From Alf to T.J. Hooker, no piece of nostalgia seems to go unturned. John and Ted’s love of the film “Flash Gordon” and the actor that plays Flash, Sam J. Jones, gets them in more trouble than any man and his animated teddy bear should ever get into. Jones even makes a few appearances as himself, including a hilarious party scene that gives “Animal House” a run for its money.
Most of the laughs come from Ted the bear (credit to MacFarlane who provides his voice). He spends much of the film doing and saying outlandish things, and the fact that it comes from a cute plush teddy bear makes it all the more absurd. There’s a particular scene in a grocery store that leaves you shaking your head, yet Ted simply responds with “Now I know where to draw the line.” His debauchery is always woven with a child-like innocence you’d expect from a plush toy.
“Ted” is a unique combination of buddy flick, romantic comedy and raunchy, lowbrow humor that provides laughs from start to finish. The dated popular culture references don’t overshadow the plot but rather supplement it, adding another fun layer to the film — almost serving as a character itself. Somehow MacFarlane seems to get a pass in the name of comedy when making fun of everyone, regardless of race, gender, weight or creed. “Ted” is no exception and carries a message that it’s OK to be serious while maintaining some of that childlike humor and magic. It’s also makes a bold attempt to become the funniest film of 2012.