REVIEW: Colossal

28 04 2017

Historically in monster movies, the imminent threat stands in for a more existential fear. From foreign invaders to nuclear weapons and screen addiction, we’ve seen any number of external forces terrorize the cinema. But starting in the 1960s (as compellingly chronicled by Jason Zinoman in his book “Shock Value“), some of these monsters came to represent parts of ourselves. They were manifestations of some internal demons, not some societal hazard.

Nacho Vigalondo’s “Colossal” is the latest film in this tradition as Anne Hathaway’s trainwreck of a character, Gloria, manifests as a godzilla-like beast in Seoul when she gets blackout drunk in a certain radius. The premise sounds a little risible, admittedly, but Hathaway and Vigalondo sell its spirit with gusto. This is not the kind of movie devoted to detailed scientific explanation. You accept the oddly specific rules under which it operates and then delve into its rich metaphorical terrain.

A mid-movie turn in the plot should go unspoiled in a review, but I’ll hint at it by saying it opens “Colossal” up to be more than just a metaphor for alcoholism. The monster is all of us and whatever baggage we carry that makes us act impulsively. It takes a physical manifestation of these forces to make Gloria realize that her actions can cause collateral damage harming people around her. Vigalondo adds plenty of contemporary touches – in particular how the Internet can find a way to turn tragedy into memes instantaneously – but this classical dilemma lies at the very heart of the film. The satisfying resolution shows why Hathaway is uniquely equipped to play the part. It requires creativity, determination and a brushing aside of the haters. B+





REVIEW: Sleeping With Other People

4 10 2015

Sleeping with Other PeopleThough the first two words in the title of writer/director Leslye Hedland’s “Sleeping With Other People” are a polite euphemism, that semantic choice probably represents her most cautious choice regarding sex.  Unlike so many others dealing with romance and courtship on screen, she leans in to the thorniness that most choose to sugarcoat.  She embraces the mess created by the libido’s interference with the heart.

Her two main characters, Jason Sudeikis’ Jake and Alison Brie’s Lainey, are even admitted sex addicts.  Early on in the film, the two even reunite after a collegiate one-night stand at a meeting for those struggling to rein in their urges.  “Shame” this is not, but it’s at least a more nuanced portrayal of sexuality than 2011’s pair of hookup movies, “Friends with Benefits” and “No Strings Attached.”

Yet sadly, Hedland also seems to borrow one too many plot points from said movies.  Even as she resists reducing love into sex, Jake and Lainey’s drifting back towards each other as they try to push apart feels like a page ripped right from the rom-com playbook.  There’s at least some good humor as Hedland blends in some battle of the sexes humor a la “When Harry Met Sally,” but Sudeikis and Brie lack the chemistry to sell their relationship beyond a few choice scenes.  The two always feel like they are operating on different comedic frequencies.

Despite a winning ensemble that includes fantastic actors like Adam Scott, Natasha Lyonne and Amanda Peet, “Sleeping With Other People” just never coheres its parts into a satisfying whole.  I suspect the only time I’ll ever think about this film again is when taking an overview of films that show how technology inhibits intimacy – Hedland does include one powerful split-screen shot of Jake and Lainey texting each other from their own beds.  Though they look and connect as if they were right next to each other, their phones still make them worlds apart.  B-2stars





REVIEW: We’re The Millers

13 08 2013

We're the MillersIn “We’re The Millers,” television’s “Breaking Bad” meets film’s “National Lampoon’s Vacation” as mid-level drug dealer David Clark (Jason Sudeikis) enlists a crazy cast to help him smuggle marijuana across the U.S.-Mexico border.  (So in that way, perhaps it’s more like “Maria Full of Grace” meets 2013’s “Identity Thief.”)  This motley crew from near his building includes well-meaning exotic dancer Rose (Jennifer Aniston), tough teenage street rat (Emma Roberts), and an aloof adolescent boy Kenny (Will Poulter) with a passing resemblance to Tintin.

The movie manages to provide a few decent laughs along the journey, though they are largely front-loaded.  “We’re The Millers” starts off with some very clever and witty banter, largely uttered by Sudeikis, who is quickly proving himself to be quite the sultan of snark.  It’s certainly a much better role for him than his bland characters in “Horrible Bosses” and “Hall Pass,” and he could soon be rivaling Paul Rudd for roles.

But the film starts to veer off course in the second half, resorting to more and more ludicrous gags to provide humor.  These ridiculous scenarios often provide their fair share of cringe-worthy moments, enough to make the film feel like it has overstayed its welcome by a solid 30 minutes.  Though I don’t want to say too much, at least “We’re The Millers” doesn’t end by caving to all the road trip, family, or rom-com tropes.

By the time the gag reel rolls, the film essentially arrives at a comedic standstill.  It’s got enough sardonic and standoffish Aniston and sulky Roberts to make anyone roll their eyes.  But it’s also got some good Sudeikis everyman sarcasm and a pretty winning performance from Poulter, playing naive innocence with gusto.  So, in other words, “We’re the Millers” is decidedly average.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Drinking Buddies

27 07 2013

Drinking BuddiesThe mainstreaming of mumblecore continues in summer 2013 with Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies,” picking up the baton from Lynn Shelton’s summer 2012 crossover film “Your Sister’s Sister.”  Swanberg, picking up on so much of the nuance that makes us human, has made one of the best cases for his emerging movement’s tropes to be taken up by higher-caliber comedies.

Alfred Hitchcock famously said that drama is life with all the dull bits cut out.  Swanberg, however, shows that plenty of drama can be found in all the conversation dead space in our lives.  In fact, it’s often the stammering, muttering, and fumbling for words that says the most about how we really feel.  If “Drinking Buddies” were any further away from Aaron Sorkin-speak on the dialect spectrum, it would be a silent film.

These moments of insight into the characters’ feelings make them feel so much more like us, not just lines of dialogue on a page.  Swanberg’s script allows so much wiggle-room for actors to explore, and the cast of “Drinking Buddies” explores it to fascinating ends.  As Kate and Luke, old friends fond of the brew, Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson share an unconventional and unpredictable chemistry.  We’re never sure where their inebriated antics will take them, but it’s always a gripping watch.

There’s also the context of their quasi-flirtatious conversations – both of them are in serious relationships – that adds a level of suspense to the proceedings.  Kate is tied to the coldly intellectual Chris (Ron Livingston), while Luke is nearing engagement to Jill (Anna Kendrick in her best performance since “Up in the Air“).  There’s none of your usual clichéd couple drama here … just two pairs that feel like they could be friends of ours in real life.

“Drinking Buddies” doesn’t aim for grand statements on life, love, and commitment.  Swanberg’s film finds that just showing normal people going about their lives can be a rewarding exercise without overreaching and adding significance.  B+3stars





REVIEW: The Campaign

7 08 2012

Political satires are no cakewalk, and they require keen insight to even get off the ground.  “The Campaign,” perfectly released into the silly season of a Presidential election year, is a pointed sendup of the antics of a post-Citizens United world where money can flow into elections like lava.  The message of writers Chris Henchy (who I still won’t forgive for “Land of the Lost“) and Shawn Harwell comes across loud and clear, although it lands without the strength of Will Ferrell’s punch that socks a baby.

While the satire may be sharply pointed, its impact is severely dulled by crude, sophomoric humor that is far beneath the intelligence of the ideas being expressed.  It stoops to pretty low lows – I’m talking like barely above the horrendously offensive “The Change-Up” – to provide entertainment for the masses … because heaven forbid they actually tried to level with moviegoers and not treat them like children!

Sadly enough, politicians have been providing enough inappropriate fodder for humor through gaffes and just plain idiotic behavior.  For example, in the summer of 2010, a joke where Will Ferrell’s cocky incumbent North Carolina Congressman Cam Brady sends a salacious picture to a mistress on Twitter, it would have just been laughed off as something Frank the Tank would have done in “Old School.”  Now, it’s a boneheaded move ripped from the real-life disgrace of Representative Anthony Weiner.  You stay classy, Washington.

Nevertheless, the jokes aimed straight at the heart of our nation’s capital are few and far between in the movie.  The means employed to achieve the ends of “The Campaign” distract from the real lunacy it’s trying to expose to the audience.  The fact that a few billionaires can put their puppet into play for a seat in the House of Representatives with just a few checks and a political consultant who knows what polls best in every category is probably not even that far-fetched a thing to happen off the screen.  They could probably even do it with somebody dumber than Zach Galifianakis’ Marty Huggins, the pug-loving village idiot!

No one is going to come out of “The Campaign” talking about the antics of the corrupt; they are going to come out talking about the antics of the comedians.  The movie becomes about what ridiculous lengths Brady and Huggins go to – and they go to ridiculously taboo extremes – in order to beat each other, not about what ridiculous system allowed this situation to become feasible.  It’s the billionaires, stupid.  While we’re on the topic of political slogans, the buck starts here, there’s nothing you can believe in, and no they couldn’t.  C+





REVIEW: Horrible Bosses

6 07 2011

We are now inhabiting the post-“Hangover” world, and in case you needed any proof that studios are looking to locate the success gene in the hit comedy’s DNA, I submit “Horrible Bosses” as evidence.  It really shouldn’t surprise you; it’s a page straight from the television networks’ playbook.  As soon as Fox premiered “American Idol,” every network wanted a singing competition.  After ABC had a big hit with “Dancing with the Stars,” every network suddenly had a dancing show.  We live in a culture of thinly veiled rip-offs that barely bother to disguise their ever-so-slight variations from the original success story.

The good news for Seth Gordon and the “Horrible Bosses” team is that, at least at this moment, I still find the formula amusing and funny.  The next movie shamelessly pressed from the “Hangover” mold, however, will probably not be in my good graces, so at least they got the timing right on this one.  But the fact that some movie other than the sequel has tried using a similar blueprint for high cash and laugh returns signals a foreboding era in comedy.  (Then again, I said the same thing last summer about “Iron Man 2” being the first of many “The Dark Knight” rip-offs, and nothing seems to have materialized there.)

The film invites these comparisons by using what may be the most recognizable aspect of “The Hangover” for laughs – the Wolfpack.  From now on, any comedy that has a ragtag alliance of three thirtysomething guys will inevitably have to be measured against the ridiculously high standard set by Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis.  Unfair?  Probably.  Justified?  Definitely.

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REVIEW: Hall Pass

4 07 2011

It’s a shame that “Hall Pass” doesn’t have a less contrived script or a bit more maturity.  If it had these things, it would be one heck of a comedy.  But alas, it doesn’t, and what we are stuck with is a few decent laughs held together by a string of ridiculous events.

It could be worse, though, as Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis play off each other pretty well.  Their sex-crazed babbling combined with a blooming barely-adolescent brain and the libido of a retirement home patient re-entering the game is absolutely outlandish.  Yet as childish as practically every line and situation was, I would find myself chuckling in spite of it, mostly along with Sudeikis.  Maybe it’s because he’s used to finding nuggets of gold inside of crap at “Saturday Night Live,” but whatever it is, the man is some kind of funny.   Wilson, on the other hand, feels past his prime with humor quality receding almost as precipitously as his hairline.

But these two hopeless husbands get a chance to live out their dreams in order to relieve their woebegone wives (played by Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate).  In the words of Joy Behar, it’s a “hall pass.”  The movie never really cashes in on the high concept, just as Wilson and Sudeikis’ helpless sex drive leads them nowhere while their wives, in the words of Justin Timberlake, “get their sexy on.”

The stupid shenanigans distract from anything meaningful that “Hall Pass” might have to say about marriage.  I’m doubting there actually was anything in the way of commentary as the characters sure don’t seem to have any scruples about the messed-up events of the movie.  It’s definitely a far cry from The Farrelly Brothers’ “There’s Something About Mary.”  As for the conclusion of this review, I’m not really sure whether to steer you towards or away from the movie: it’s just another middling, forgettable comedy that I couldn’t feel more ambivalently about.  C /