Friday, June 26, 2009

'Year One' is a tremendous let down

There are few movie going experiences more disappointing than being let down by a film you were anticipating. With “Year One,” in spite of all the negative reviews, I was ready to laugh, but alas I have to join the majority in saying that “Year One” is a dud.

“Year One” stars Jack Black (“Tropic Thunder”) and Michael Cera (“Juno,” “Superbad”) as a couple of hapless Neanderthals who essentially start off on the first ever road trip after Black eats the forbidden fruit and gains the knowledge of good and evil.

In this case this knowledge is to make an idiot an arrogant, insufferable know-it-all even though he is no smarter. That sounds funnier on the page than it does in execution.

The characters use modern slang and language, and the juxtaposition with the setting, in theory, can be fun. Mel Brooks and Monty Python have done this well in the past. The plot jumps around the early days of Biblical history and includes run-ins with Cain and Abel and Abraham and Isaac.

Just as the film seems on the path to being a Biblical satire along the lines of Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” it veers off and settles on having Black and Cera go on a rescue mission to save their potential girlfriends.

To be sure, there are a few big laughs, but they are stretched very thin. Most of the best bits are in the trailer and, in some cases (the stoning scene comes to mind) are better edited in the trailer.

The invaluable Hank Azaria, most recently seen in “A Night at the Museum 2,” is a welcomed presence in the film and squeezes every bit of humor out of his appearance as Abraham. He has a funny bit involving circumcision that recalls a similar routine in Brooks’ “Robin Hood: Men in Tights.”

The fight between Cain (David Cross) and Abel (Paul Rudd) is also amusing. Don’t worry, there will be no spoilers as to who wins. Aside from the occasional clever one-liner, that’s pretty much it in terms of laughs as the film gets bogged down by plot.

It is hard to say what went wrong here as the film has an excellent comedy pedigree. The film is directed and co-written by Harold Ramis with two of the writers of “The Office," and produced by reigning comedy king Judd Apatow.

Ramis is clearly trying to make a throwback to the films he directed and/or co-wrote in the late 1970s and early 1980s. With films like “Animal House,” “Vacation,” Caddyshack,” “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters,” Ramis helped to create the slob humor this film is trying to emulate, but there was a certain degree of sophistication to those earlier films. You have to be smart to do stupid humor well.

Too often the gags in “Year One” are simply gross and cringe inducing. This holds most true for a character played by the normally reliable Oliver Platt. His character likes to have oil rubbed into his hairy chest. If reading that sounds bad, then you don’t want to see the visual which is at least 10 times worse.

Aside from better jokes, for a comedy like this to work you need to take the
“Airplane” approach of throwing as many jokes at the screen as possible and hope more stick than don’t. Here the energy is slack and meandering and the humor relies too heavily on what could be called the four Ps: pratfalls, poop, piss and penis.

The film also leans too heavily on Black’s shtick. Black can be a very funny performer, but he needs to be reined in and be given good material. Ramis allows him to roam free far too much, and his mugging becomes more irritating than amusing.

Cera fairs better, and his deadpan, dry delivery goes a long way, but he can only create so much goodwill with the audience.

I really wanted to like “Year One,” but this is just not worth a trip to the theater. If you must see it, wait for DVD.

Friday, June 19, 2009

New 'Pelham' doesn't hold up to original

Some films get better the longer they linger in your mind. The original 1974 version of “The Taking of Pelham 123” starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw is one of those films. Other films that went down OK during viewing turn rancid bouncing around your cranium. Unfortunately that is the case for the new version of “The Taking of Pelham 123.”

I need to thank director Tony Scott for making “The Taking of Pelham 123” if only for bringing to my attention the original film, which I had not heard of or seen. It is an excellent thriller. Doing a direct comparison with this new version only further accentuates its flaws.

The remake of “Pelham 123” isn’t an awful film. It has some good qualities, largely supplied by the always interesting Denzel Washington, but it just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

The premise, involving hijackers taking a subway car and giving the city one hour to get them $10 million in ransom money or they kill a passenger for every late minute, is intrinsically interesting and hard to foul up entirely.

Washington stars as Walter Garber a career transit employee who is slumming it as a dispatcher because he is suspected of taking a bribe. John Travolta, who has provided excellent villainy in films like “Face/Off,” is Ryder the mastermind behind the hijacking.

Remaking a film successfully is tricky business. Being slavishly faithful to the original – like Gus Van Sant’s ill advised shot-by-shot remake of “Psycho” – makes the new film pointless. A fresh spin to the material needs to justify the redo, but different doesn't mean better.

Scott’s version of “Pelham” adds needless back stories for Garber and Ryder and subtracts the original film’s cynical, sarcastic humor. The attempts at subtext to the plot are unnecessary. Instead of being a story of a heist it becomes the story of Garber’s redemption.

The screenplay by Brian Helgeland (“Mystic River”) tries hard to establish the tired idea that Garber and Ryder are different sides of the same coin. The cliché line: “you and I aren’t so different” is even thrown in for good measure.

The film should be focused solely on the heist, how to get the money to the hijackers and how Ryder and cohorts are going to escape unnoticed from an underground tunnel. That’s all the film needs to grip.

Scott is a talented director that in his last string of films including “Man on Fire” and “Domino” has developed his own unique, aggressive visual style, but it doesn’t fit this material. His shaky, blurred camera work and over editing is distracting as are freeze frames telling you how much time is left before the deadline lapses.

The film is at its strongest when the camera work becomes less frantic and focuses in on the back and forth between Washington and Travolta. In these scenes, Scott creates some genuine tension. There’s a taut scene in which Travolta threatens to kill someone unless Washington admits something.

Once the initial deadline passes the film doesn’t seem to know where to go and rushes through the escape. The end sequence just de-evolves into a by-the-numbers chase and the final moments of the movie send a bizarre message that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

It is the acting that carries the film over its shortcomings and at times makes the film work when it shouldn’t. Washington is just so good at playing cool and composed under pressure. Travolta is at times too manic, but as in the past he makes a good villain. There is also strong support from John Turturro as a hostage negotiator and James Gandolfini as the mayor.

My best advice would be to wait until the film comes out on DVD and do a double feature with the original. That could be a lot of fun and could stir lively debate as to what works and doesn’t work in each film.

Friday, June 12, 2009

This 'hangover' provides big raunchy laughs

Ever since “Animal House” became a huge comedy smash in the summer of 1978, the low-brow gross-out comedy has been a mainstay of the summer movie season. There have been many pale imitators, but some have been riotously funny. Luckily, “The Hangover” falls mostly in the latter category.

“The Hangover” is set in Las Vegas the morning after a bachelor party that went way over the top even by Vegas standards. The problem is no one involved can remember what happened, and the groom (Justin Bartha, “National Treasure”) is missing. In his place
are a baby and a tiger.

The film’s set-up gives it a bit of an edge over the many others films that deal in the debauchery of Vegas or trade in frat boy humor. Instead of seeing the exploits of the main characters, we are left joining them in piecing together the aftermath of what turns out to be very strange evening.

There aren’t really characters in the film so much as there are familiar archetypes: the snarky ringleader (Bradley Cooper, “Yes Man”), the uptight geek (Ed Helms, “The Office) and the lovable slob (Zach Galifianakis). It is to the actors’ credit that they find some fresh angles in which to play their roles.

Cooper, Helms and Galifianakis have a believable chemistry together. They seem like friends. Galifianakis steals the movie several times as Alan, the bride’s socially awkward, perhaps slightly deranged, childlike brother. He desperately wants to be liked, and his awkward attempts at male bonding score some of the films biggest laughs.

The film is funny, but in mere description some of the better jokes probably will seem flat. The performances and the execution are what make the film work. Director Todd Philips has been one of the few directors to successful rehash this sort of frat boy humor with his films “Road Trip” and “Old School.”

The screenwriters, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, have written films like “Four Christmases” which have been amusing, but felt collared by a PG-13 rating. Here with an R rating the comedy seems less restrained, and it is all the better for it.

There is one aspect of the film that is likely to leave a nasty taste in many people’s mouths. A character played by Ken Jeong (“Knocked Up”) is both simultaneously a gay and Asian stereotype that, with the exception of the character’s surprising introduction, isn’t very funny. These sort of films are suppose to deal in political incorrectness and pushing the boundaries of good taste, but this characterization seems too broad and out of place with the rest of the film.

The above shortcoming isn’t enough to detract from the film overall. Even so, if you aren’t a fan of low-brow humor then you may want to take a pass on “The Hangover.”
This certainly isn’t a subtle film — after all, this is the sort of film that has jokes involving being tasered in the face and genitals — but the mystery aspect of the story does hold interest.

There is also a weird energy to the events unfolding, and the film goes to unexpected places. There is a celebrity cameo that has been revealed in the trailers that I won’t spoil here for those who have managed to avoid the previews. Let’s just say that that it is oddly inspired.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Pixar is 'up' to wonderous things again

“Up” is the perfect title for Pixar’s 10th feature length film because uplifted is exactly how you feel as the final credits roll. This is one of the most emotionally satisfying, engaging and funny films of this or any other year. “Up” is something truly special.

Starting in 1995 with “Toy Story,” the first entirely computer animated feature film, the Pixar animation studio has made consistently rewarding films with equal measures of heart and humor. Computer animation has since become the standard, but competing studios rarely match Pixar’s body of work in terms of character and story.

Their last three films in particular, “Ratatouille,” “WALL-E” and now “Up,” are on another level. As was true with its two direct predecessors, “Up,” is not simply a great animated feature — it is a great film.

“Up” starts by introducing two young wannabe adventurers named Carl and Ellie who worship explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Young Carl makes a promise to take Ellie to Paradise Falls, a fictional region in South America.

In a beautiful, impossibly sweet and heartbreaking montage we are shown the arc of the couple’s life including the setbacks that prevented their trip and ultimately Ellie’s death. It is an amazing few minutes and hooks you for the rest of the film. From that moment on you are deeply emotionally invested in Carl.

Carl (Ed Asner) is left a grumpy widow and retired balloon salesmen, who when threatened with a retirement home uses thousands of balloons to convert his home into a flying house and sets off on the adventure he promised to take. When that house first lifts off there’s a genuine sense of wonder and magic that is so rare in modern cinema.

Along his trip Carl keeps picking up companions. First is Russell (Jordan Nagai), a boy scout that was unwittingly on his porch during lift off. Once they arrive in Paradise Falls they are joined by a prehistoric bird dubbed Kevin and Dug (Bob Peterson), a dog that thanks to a special collar can speak. Dug is part of a pack of talking dogs, but not all of them are as nice as Dug.

Many films, both animated and live action, have had talking dogs, but what is refreshingly unique and funny about the dogs here is they still speak with dog logic. They are easily distracted by squirrels and tennis balls.

Carl and his comrades also encounter the long missing Muntz, but he isn’t what he seems. It may appear as if I’ve revealed a lot of the plot, but there’s so much more. The plot has some predictable elements, but it is in the execution and details that the film soars. Directors Pete Docter and Peterson create moments of striking imagination and surprising invention. It wouldn’t be fair to cite specific examples because they deserve to be discovered on their own.

What makes this more than just an adventure story is the characters. You will truly grow to love and care about Carl, Russell, Kevin and Dug as if they were flesh and blood characters. Your humanity is thrown into question if the film doesn’t at least make you tear up a little.

The film is by no means a total downer. The film has laughs both big and small, but the humor is mined from the story and the character rather than the pop culture references that often over populate other animated features.

The voice work, though limited, is splendid. Asner is wonderfully gruff as Carl and he allows for nice shading of the character as his inner childhood adventurer returns to the fore. The dynamic that develops between Carl and Nagai’s Russell is sweet and sincere. Plummer also provides a full bodied voice performance although he hits entirely different notes than Asner.

Some younger viewers may grow restless as this is more character driven than gag driven. I heard lots of kids asking questions in the theater I was in, but they were clearly involved. I’m sure “Up” will be a film watched repeatedly by kids on DVD and that parents will gladly and willingly watch it with them.