Archive for April, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement

Monday, April 30th, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

The story of chef Tom (Jason Segel) and academic Violet (Emily Blunt), plays out in “The Five-Year Engagement” with a mixture of novelty and familiarity akin to the plots of countless romantic comedies produced since at least the advent of synchronous sound. Frequent collaborators Segel, who both co-wrote and stars in the movie, and Nicholas Stoller, who co-wrote and directed, play to many of the strengths of the “house style” established by mentor/producer Judd Apatow over the past several years. “The Five-Year Engagement” does not quite conform to the “striver-slacker” construction described by David Denby in his savvy essay published in the July 23, 2007 issue of “The New Yorker,” but it does echo any number of the critic’s ideas concerning the state of the genre.

Denby’s “critic at large” piece, titled “A Fine Romance: The New Comedy of the Sexes” contains within it the observation that the giants of the form, including Capra, La Cava, McCarey, Hawks, Leisen, and Sturges, understood the value and importance of gender equality, and that even though “the man and woman may not enjoy parity of social standing or money… they are equals in spirit, will, and body.” “The Five-Year Engagement” mostly takes this sound advice to heart, bestowing upon its central pair the conflict of Violet’s post-doctoral appointment in Michigan just as Tom’s culinary career looks to blossom in San Francisco.  Should they stay or should they go? Either way, someone is going to be resentful.

Tom insists that Violet take the gig, even if it means – for him – trading the promise of running an upscale, fresh seafood kitchen for the grim reality of a no-challenge sandwich shop. The geographical shift quickly develops into an emasculating disappointment, but Tom and Violet are certain that love can conquer all. As built by Segel and Stoller, Tom is the partner whose point of view is slightly more privileged, but the film’s explorations of the practicalities of adulthood and the necessary sacrifices that we may need to make distinguishes it from so many of the farfetched, middlebrow concoctions that pass for modern comedies.

Stoller occasionally struggles to find tonal equilibrium, and Tom’s descent into the bearded, wintry melancholia that anticipates his most passive aggressive choices is far broader than the pointed pillow talk following his faked orgasm and other tough, “grown-up” discussions. The supporting cast is well-stocked with talented players, and Chris Pratt and Alison Brie, who play Tom’s pal and Violet’s sister, are perfect foils whose haphazard and instantaneous bliss arouses deep jealousy in the protagonists (Pratt’s wedding rendition of “Cucurrucucu paloma” is simultaneously hilarious and heartfelt).

One of the most welcome conceptual planks in Segel and Stoller’s script is the upfront announcement that Tom and Violet are already together, in love, and compatible. And while “The Five-Year Engagement” still depends upon a quantity of genre staples (inappropriate engagement party speech, drunken near-infidelities, and as Amanda Dobbins adroitly puts it, “bangs as a symbol of life change”), the filmmakers’ ambition is more “Annie Hall” than anything starring Katherine Heigl after “Knocked Up.”  Yes, Tom and Violet will go their separate ways in the “second act breakup” before the inevitable final act reconciliation – this is a romantic comedy, after all – but the details of their journey, compared to so much of the competition, are gladly received.

Casa de mi padre

Monday, April 23rd, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Mexploitation throwback “Casa de mi padre” may not be as satisfying as its surreal pedigree promises, but the Spanish language comedy featuring Will Ferrell as the dim bulb son of a rancher played by the late, great Pedro Armendariz Jr. (to whom the film is dedicated) is recommended viewing for anyone interested in vintage look, z-grade telenovela tributes. As Armando Alvarez, Ferrell delivers his dialogue straight, and press notes made hay with news of the actor’s one-month dialect crash course. Ferrell’s unshakable commitment to character has long been one of his assets, and he carves out a very recognizable persona as an eager-to-please second son yearning to be loved like his older brother.

“Casa de mi padre” echoes the low-fi techniques lovingly reproduced by Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Edgar Wright, Eli Roth, and Rob Zombie in 2007’s “Grindhouse,” including rough splices and print damage. Director Matt Piedmont applies the low-budget, poor production value aesthetic with a wide brush, from ongoing gags involving the liberal placement of mannequins as background “extras” to mismatched continuity within scenes that cut between location photography and studio sets. The silliness extends to the regular appearance of a spirit guide big cat fabricated by the Jim Henson Creature Shop, a handful of musical interludes and an after-the-credits endorsement from a game Dan “Grizzly Adams” Haggerty.

The plot of the movie lifts several of the most recognizable elements of Elia Kazan’s adaptation of “East of Eden,” as well as some of the equally triangular melodramatic whiffs of King Vidor’s “Duel in the Sun.” The filmmakers are certainly affectionate toward their retro inspirations, lavishing the same kind of reverence and attention to period detail “Pootie Tang,” Undercover Brother,” and “Black Dynamite” paid to Blaxploitation.  As the beloved first-born Alvarez scion, Diego Luna demonstrates his inner Tony Montana, engaging fellow “Y tu mama tambien” compadre Gael Garcia Bernal in a contest of flamboyant displays of swaggering machismo.

The movie’s firearm and squib count grossly outpaces the ribaldry, and “Casa de mi padre” skips much of the genre’s sleaze. Predictably, however, the opportunities for women within this world are defined by sexuality. Padre Alvarez employs a battery of scantily clad housemaids, but like any number of the film’s visuals, no payoff or reason is offered to explain their attire. Ferrell and co-star Genesis Rodriguez, who plays Armando’s irresistible, soon-to-be sister-in-law, engage in a ridiculous sex scene that fetishizes the male and female derriere to the brink of lunacy.

Current news items covering the brutality of the illegal drug trade in Mexico are a far cry from the bizarre comic treatment of the same themes in “Casa.” Even so, the movie’s lukewarm social commentary, embedded primarily in the officious, racist DEA agent played by Nick Offerman, reminds viewers that stereotypes can be a two-way street (an explanation of the supply and demand economics of cocaine hilariously sees American buyers as “shit-eating crazy monster babies”). The critique is a throwaway, and the agenda of “Casa de mi padre” is more appropriately concerned with Armando squinting into the sunset with “the eyes of a small chicken” while he tries in vain to roll a cigarette.

The Cabin in the Woods

Monday, April 16th, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

WARNING: The following review reveals plot information. Read only if you have seen “The Cabin in the Woods.”

While major metropolitan critics were asked in preview screenings to avoid any significant revelations contained within the entertaining metafiction titled “The Cabin in the Woods,” any meaningful discussion of the movie would be worthless without the ability to address what amounts to the entire operational conceit of the horror-comedy. In other words, read no more if you plan to see the film. Cooked up by co-screenwriters Joss Whedon (who also produced) and Drew Goddard (who also directed), “The Cabin in the Woods” was shot in 2009 and caught up in MGM’s Chapter 11 problems. Time on the shelf has done little to diminish the movie’s catchy exuberance.

Five coeds pack swimsuits and climb into an RV in anticipation of a weekend frolic at the location of the title, unwittingly cruising into an elaborate trap marking them as human sacrifices. Their every move is monitored and manipulated by the eyes of a massive underground operation led by a pair of eggheads (deadpanning Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) in white, short-sleeved shirts. En route to the remote destination, a stop at a cobwebbed gas station involves an ominous exchange between the travelers and the creepy, tobacco-chewing attendant Mordecai (Tim De Zarn), but needless to say, the kids ignore the harbinger as if they had never seen a horror movie.

Grafting the puppetmaster premise of “The Truman Show” and the less-known “Special Service” episode of the 1980s “Twilight Zone” to the self-referential, filmic Droste effects generated by Wes Craven’s “Scream” (“Cabin” includes a variation on the “rule” proscribing splitting up when in danger) and Sam Raimi’s Ash saga, especially “Evil Dead II,” “The Cabin in the Woods” favors humor over fright, even though the filmmakers jolt the audience with several shocks before an outrageous late-arriving turn where all hell breaks loose. Along the way, the filmmakers identify their own predilections for all manner of cinematic scare tactics, thoughtfully distinguishing between the plain old zombie and the “zombie redneck torture family.”

The vast number of allusions to horror conventions would take multiple viewings to tally, and Whedon and Goddard gleefully pile up references to H.P Lovecraft, EC Comics, lakeside psycho killer series, John Landis and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Japanese ghost stories, and the “anything goes” spirit of Nobuhiko Ohbayashi’s “Hausu.” The film would have been even better had the elevators containing our collective worst nightmares included cameo appearances by additional iconic inspirations such as the key Universal Studios monsters portrayed by Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff, as well as more recent slashers like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger.

Sigourney Weaver, whose Ellen Ripley is one of the quintessential “final girls” identified by Carol Clover – despite the lack of any preoccupation with the character’s virginity in “Alien” – pads the “voices of authority” category on her resume, adding “The Cabin in the Woods” to a list that includes “Avatar,” “WALL-E,” and “Paul.” The surprise of seeing Weaver is compromised by her duller narrative function as the denouement “explainer” who nearly blurts “If not for you meddling kids…” Kristen Connolly’s Dana, whose unisex name is another homage to one tradition of final girl protagonists, may be prevented from fulfilling all the criteria associated with the concept of the last survivor standing, but she may earn a spot next to some of the genre’s most tenacious veterans.

American Reunion

Monday, April 9th, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

The latest if not the last entry in the teensploitation franchise known for its ribald antics and carnal humiliations, “American Reunion” is the fourth theatrically released movie in the series and the eighth overall. Missing the tenth anniversary by a couple years, the script clumsily but self-mockingly explains away the unlikelihood of a thirteenth class reunion with some expository dialogue as protagonist Jim (Jason Biggs) meets up with his core group of friends to relive the memories of 1999 and presumably generate a few new ones. Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, of “Harold & Kumar” fame, assume screenplay and directorial duties, but never quite capture the – dare we say, nuances – of Paul and Chris Weitz’s filmmaking and Adam Herz’s writing.

For admirers of the original film willing to overlook almost everything in the terrible sequels, “American Reunion” tries with no small amount of desperation to capitalize on the seemingly incongruous blend of familial warmth and penis jokes popularized though not originated in Judd Apatow’s movies. Both Apatow and the “American Pie” films owe a debt to John Hughes, not to mention “American Graffiti,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” and “Dazed and Confused.” The original film’s male-centered quest to dispense with virginity aligns “American Pie” with a long list of sex-as-rite-of-passage tales, including “Porky’s,” “The Last American Virgin,” and the lesser known “Hot Moves.”

Every principal member of the original cast returns, although Natasha Lyonne’s Jessica appears in a fleeting cameo. Only the most devoted fans would remember that of Jim’s best friends, Chris Klein’s Oz did not attend “American Wedding,” and neither did Lyonne, Mena Suvari, Tara Reid, or Shannon Elizabeth. Several minor characters, including John/MILF Guy #2 (John Cho) and Chuck “The Sherminator” Sherman (Chris Owen) are also on hand. We learn that Jim’s mother has died, but her passing seems to have been written essentially to facilitate a boozy encounter between Noah (Eugene Levy) and Stifler’s mom (Jennifer Coolidge).

The lustful chain of outrageous calamities bedeviling Jim over the years (pastry masturbation, superglue mistaken for lubricant, shaved pubic hair vented directly to wedding cake) forges a new link in neighbor Kara (Ali Cobrin), the girl-next-door that Jim used to babysit. Now eighteen and eager to lose her own virginity, Kara targets our married hero, straining his imagination as well as his fidelity to Michelle (Alyson Hannigan). Naturally, Jim’s understanding father is on hand to awkwardly share advice with his son, and even though we’ve been there so many times before, the nicely timed scenes between Biggs and Levy are among the movie’s high points.

On several occasions, “American Reunion” acknowledges the difficulties of growing up and moving on, from Jim and Michelle’s transition into parenthood to Stifler’s (Seann William Scott) angry realization that high school may have been the best time of his life. At the expense of other more promising stories, “Reunion” spends altogether too much energy on the boorish Stifler, the perpetual fifth wheel who emerged from secondary status to huge popularity, ala Arthur Fonzarelli. Scott’s character is much better in small doses, and even though a surprising turnabout reverses his previous failures, some small pleasure is derived watching “the Stif-meister” labor fruitlessly to reconstruct his former glories.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Monday, April 2nd, 2012


Movie review by Greg Carlson

In the opening scene of Jay and Mark Duplass’ “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” title manchild Jason Segel humorously expounds on his dedication to M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs.” In breathless wonderment, Jeff outlines into his handheld recorder a philosophy dependent on barely-there synchronicities and a universe where even the most farfetched coincidences could be the markers of profound portent. Given the history of the filmmakers, the viewer cannot be sure whether and to what extent Jeff is sympathetic and meant to be taken seriously. Is he an ambitionless pothead whose embrace of a ridiculous Mel Gibson film suggests to sophisticates that he is not deserving of respect? That the monologue is delivered on the toilet initially points to yes, but the rest of the movie appears to argue on behalf of Jeff as a decent, worthy person.

Jeff’s easygoing lifestyle is mirrored by the movie’s uncomplicated plot, in which Jeff and his insensitive brother Pat (Ed Helms) reconnect while conducting an incompetent surveillance job on Pat’s frustrated and possibly adulterous wife Linda (Judy Greer). Meanwhile, Jeff’s mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon) attempts to figure out the identity of the entirely too obvious secret admirer at the office where she works. The character-driven orientation favored by the filmmakers allows the accomplished cast to riff on the subtleties and tics of personality that are needed to fill in the gaps between the slapstick shenanigans that echo so many dozens of TV sitcom scripts.

Tagged as practitioners of the so-called mumblecore aesthetic of do-it-yourself moviemaking and the low stakes, irony-dependent “white people problems” that almost inevitable accompany the plotlines of said films, the Duplass brothers began the transition away from outsider status with “Cyrus” in 2010. “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” is less engaging and accomplished than “Cyrus,” even though both movies share the premise of lead adult characters who still live with their mothers. As usual, the women in the movie carry the burden of responsibility while the males embody lavish quixotic pursuits of delusional fancy – minus the chivalry. Pat’s ill-conceived purchase of a Porsche becomes an operational symbol of his self-centeredness and his inability to listen to Linda.

The Duplass’ jittery photography embraces the unmotivated zoom in what feels like deliberate defiance of technical sophistication, and the distraction, as Andrew Schenker adroitly noted, “gets more tired with each film.” The movie’s episodic structure suggests a series of short films, some better than others. The section in which Jeff gets mugged following a pickup basketball game won’t do much to help the negative perception of mumblecore’s attitudes regarding race, but the sequence unfolds like a Raymond Carver short story and is significantly more interesting than the foolish chapter in which Jeff eavesdrops on Linda at a bistro.

There is little doubt that the climax of “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” resorts to the feel-good banalities that tidily conclude so many mainstream Hollywood comedies, and the movie’s journey is significantly better than its ultimate, huggy destination. The contrivances surrounding the culmination of Jeff’s quest to discern the cosmic purpose of his “Signs”-inspired ideology take place during a traffic jam that is too shapeless to align with either Hal Needham’s “The Cannonball Run” or Jen-Luc Godard’s “Week End.” All the characters conveniently end up in the same place at the same time, and make validating, split-second decisions guaranteed to divide audience goodwill.