Monday, September 1, 2014

Heroes And A Half Star, Turtle Power!

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (directed by Jonathan Liebesman, 2014)

Anyone out there riding high on a nostalgia kick and hoping to reconnect with the joys of their youth, with any remaining desire to see "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," would be wise to remember the fable of The Scorpion And The Frog. A scorpion needing a ride across a stream meets a frog. He asks the frog for a ride, but the frog wisely retorts that he'll be stung. The scorpion assures the frog he can be trusted and wins his ride. Fate being fate, he stings the frog anyway, and with his dying breath, the frog simply asks why.

"What'd you expect, something original?," the scorpion replies. "This is the summer movie season, and there's franchises to be milked. Five dollar surcharge for those 3D glasses, by the way."

Dour, tone-deaf, and astonishingly dimwitted, this latest attempt at a Turtles reboot cynically preys on our rose-tinted fondness for that which we thought we used to love. That it's dumb should come as no surprise. We are talking about sewer dwelling mutants named for Renaissance artists who fight crime and chow on pizza. But did it have to be so, I dunno...dumb about being dumb?

At the core of the movie's troubles is an almost dizzying unsureness about itself. On the one hand, director Jonathan Liebesman and producer Michael Bay can worship at the altar of Christopher Nolan and his Batman franchise, trudging along with heavy duty mythology building. On the other hand, jokes about the turtles moonlighting as a rap group! They can reflect a rather grim worldview, confusing "grey" and "serious," with action sequences shot using the requisite gritty, handheld zooms. On the other hand, eating pizza leads to flatulence! By the time a villain says, "Activate the toxin release procedure," it's actually tough to know if they're joking.

Lets lay our cards on the table. Does anyone truly care about the Turtles? I don't mean people like me who watched it as kids, and I don't mean casual fans who might keep the animated series on in the background. I mean truly care, with the fervor of Batman followers who created vicious petitions when Ben Affleck stepped in to fill the cape of their beloved crusader. "Turtles" fatally miscalculates why we respond to different comic book lore, and while Liebesman seems to recognize the inherent silliness in this origin story, he's also unfortunately timid in offending any potential True Believers out there. This creates a tiresome level of self-aware "wink wink, nudge nudge, ain't this dumb" jokes while at the same time never fully committing to that notion.

You dance with the one that brung ya, and if "Turtles" is going to be terrible, the least it could do is stick with a reason for being terrible. Instead we have this stumbling hogwash that clumsily mixes stone faced respect with levity, resulting in a screenplay from three credited writers that doesn't know where it's going and takes forever to get there. Pay for a movie about four turtles who are teenage and mutant and ninjas (you'd be forgiven for doing so)? Too bad, chump! Strap in for a movie largely centered on plucky young reporter April O'Neil (Megan Fox, who never met a human emotion she couldn't aspire to).

That's right. Although "Turtles" comes advertised as being primarily about the, you know, turtles, they're relegated to virtual sidemen in their own movie, with the focus smack on April's ascendance in the journalism world from frivolous eye candy to respected reporter. And, given that we've got a franchise to build, dagnabbit, everything about the turtles and their creation and the villainous plot to release some toxin upon New York can somehow all be connected to her.

It's convenient, hammy storytelling, and if it's punctuated with admittedly effective motion capture technology for the turtles, to what end? No one shows up with a clear idea of what movie they wanted to make or why. None of these movies will ever be masterpieces. Watching the original 1990 "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie recently on cable, though, it still offered a firm grasp on its story, its world, and the four individual personalities of its leads. It knew what movie it wanted to be and who it wanted to be for.

This "Turtles" feels tailor made for hate watching, but not for people who hate the movie. This is hate watching for people who hate themselves.

NOTE: This review's headline is directly lifted from a joke made about the 2007 franchise reboot "TMNT" by my college dorm mate John Musci. Wherever you are in the world, my friend, if you're googling yourself, God bless.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

BOYHOOD Revels In The Immensity Of The Everyday

BOYHOOD (directed by Richard Linklater, 2014)

When an artist completes a masterpiece, it's not uncommon to call it the work he's been building to his entire career, but rarely is that as literal as with "Boyhood," the movie that writer/director Richard Linklater famously shot off and on between 2002 and 2013. We meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as the 6 year old product of divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). We leave him as an 18 year old freshman at college. And we marvel at something as blatant and obvious as the passage of time.

Defiantly plotless, "Boyhood" resists easy arcs or lessons, despite covering a 12 year time frame, offering less a story than a series of events. People grow in small increments (both physically and emotionally). Characters who seem important drift in and out of focus. The soundtrack appropriately evolves with the times.

Linklater has said that he wanted to portray a young man's coming of age story, but frustrated with the limitations of a single shooting period, turned to this monumental technique instead. But to what end? Despite overwhelming praise (even Pixar would weep with envy at this movie's Rotten Tomatoes score), there are factions of critics who say the movie fascinates more as an experiment than a final product. That if you remove its famed production method, "Boyhood" offers little more than well performed nothingness. 

So what of it? Is it fair to love "Boyhood" as much for how it was made as what was made? Does that extend to any work of art? It reminds me of the 2007 documentary "My Kid Could Paint That," which began as the chronicle of child prodigy artist Marla Olmstead until it became suggested that maybe her father either assisted with or outright completed her paintings. But should that even matter? If people paid a pretty penny for Marla's paintings thinking they were entirely her creations, then on some level, you'd hope they simply liked the works. It's still art. The importance of how it was created should only go so far.

All of which to say, yes, if Linklater made the same "Boyhood" in a more traditional way, recasting Mason as he aged, the result might seem more bland. But he didn't, we know he didn't, and this becomes inextricably tied to our experience of the movie. Best to accept this and marvel at the "how" and the "what," because it all fuses to create a singularly, transcendentally moving experience.

What Linklater and his troupe of actors (who also contributed to the screenplay as the years progressed) made is a sort of intimate epic, whose superficial mundanity becomes all the more powerful for its mundanity. If Linklater did indeed make a coming of age story, it's not the type where someone grows through one specific experience. It's the type where a kid ages from 6 to 18 without dying in between.

You know. Kinda like life.

Linklater as a filmmaker remains steadfastly committed to this intimacy. He rarely allows wider master shots until toward the end, when Mason ventures on his own and his life leaves our focus. Before then, Linklater opts for almost exclusively plain medium shots. Nothing that calls attention to itself. Nothing flashy. Even in the opening scene, our introduction to Mason is him lying on his back in the grass, but Linklater noticeably refuses to offer a panorama of the sky from his perspective. And as we jump from year to year, there are no clear transitions or establishing shots - we're just expected to keep up.

Linklater seems to focus exclusively on the trees with our awareness that the forest is out there. Mason's mother marries her professor, who reveals himself to be an abusive alcoholic, but they leave him and his character is never seen again. As he grows older, Mason experiments with drugs, but it's presented as neither life changing nor life ending. He also asks his father about girls, they discuss politics and pop culture, and his sister bugs him throughout. All of which happens during a 3 hour running time that flies with the ease of swapping stories with old friends.

None of this is presented as particularly "important." None of it has to be. "Boyhood" has the audacity to suggest that a life lived is an epic one simply because it happened to you. All of the larger arcs in "Boyhood" seem to happen on the fringes, suggested rather than portrayed. Arquette finishes graduate school and eventually teaches at a university herself. Hawke, initially portrayed as a well-meaning slacker, remarries and settles down with a new family, accepting his responsibilities as a father. Meanwhile, nothing much happens to Mason besides the same stuff that happened to all of us every day when we his age.

It's a popular theme (or cliche) of fiction, probably because it's one we universally face, to realize we're the star of our own story and the supporting player in everybody else's. If our actions seem of vital importance to the world, it's only because we're the ones doing them, day in and day out. The truth is we really don't matter, at least not in the grander scope. We each stand here as the result of coincidence, chance, and, lets face it, pure ungodly accident. 

But that doesn't mean we have to act like it. I'm 28 years old, you're however old you are, and we're lucky enough to have the full weight of those years behind us. "Boyhood," presenting an everyday life with the minutia of time lapse photography, brings that intensely moving fact crashing home. Your life is your life, and the mere fact that it's happening is kind of extraordinary.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

LIFE ITSELF, Much Like Its Subject, Is An Honest Inspiration

LIFE ITSELF (directed by Steve James, 2014)

Your excuse is invalid.

That's what I take from "Life Itself," the celebratory documentary chronicling Roger Ebert's rise to superstardom (by film critic standards) through his succumbing to cancer in 2013: Your excuse is invalid.

Or wait. Lets back that up a bit. I was all set to launch a full-on, bowing-on-my-knees lovefest for this man I feel like I know in all ways except in the real world. How, as the movie shows in unblinking detail, he spent all too many of his final days in hospitals, essentially living as a revolving door patient. How cancer robbed him of his lower jaw, his voice, and yet this period produced the best writing of his career. How Roger Ebert is better than all of us.

But that's not how Roger Ebert wanted to go down. That's not how "Life Itself," from "Hoop Dreams" director Steve James, lets him go down. He's not our messianic figure from the balcony. He's not the mere inspirational figure who overcame the odds. That's the easy answer. And "Life Itself" offers no easy answers. Unsatisfied with the typical laudatory cliches reserved for the dead, the movie instead keeps its eyes open and the camera rolling, offering a warts-and-all portrait of an imperfect man who recognized his own imperfections, accepting them to the point of becoming a better person for it.

Roger Ebert did indeed spend those final years creating the best work of his career, embracing modern communication with his blog and Twitter account, connecting with a new generation of fans, all with the support of loving wife Chaz. But as we see in unflinching detail that's almost too personal to watch, he's also the man who nearly let alcoholism consume him until the late 1970s. The man who once stole a cab from a pregnant woman (Gene Siskel's wife, who in all fairness relays the story with gentle humor). The man who, robbed of his vocal chords, passed a note to his wife with the simple request, "Kill me." 

Maybe that's what I ultimately take from "Life Itself." It's not that your excuse is invalid. Your excuse is perfectly valid. Spend some quality time with self-pity if you like. But through some positive force in your life, whether it be your own talents, the support of a loved one, the redemptive power of art, or otherwise, that very thing holding you back can also be what propels you forward. 

That's what I took from "Life Itself," and I found it profoundly moving. But it's also telling that here I am, seven paragraphs deep, and I've talked incessantly about what the movie did for me while barely scratching at the movie itself. Perhaps that's my own youthful weakness as an aspiring critic. Or maybe that's inevitable. Ebert, as much as any other film critic, joined the subjective and objective, removing the stigma of "I." Who he was sometimes affected how he saw a movie; if he had a personal reaction to something he saw, he told us. 

And try as I might, I'm finding it difficult to separate my own personal bias as a fervent Ebert disciple from the movie itself. That doesn't mean I'm blind to its minor defects, mostly structural. Obviously any documentary about Ebert's life must also touch on Gene Siskel's. Together they changed movie criticism, for better or worse, and to many in the public, their names remain forever intertwined. Still, "Life Itself" occasionally feels more like the "Siskel & Ebert Clip Show," as if James felt too enamored with classic footage of the two men bickering to look away. Much of it admittedly is classic (in no other context would "Benji The Hunted" inspire such a vigorous debate about, well, anything). And who wouldn't want to watch these outtakes on an endless loop? 

That doesn't change the fact that "Life Itself" runs a tight two hours, which when attempting to cover a man's entire life, needs all the focus it can get, and other topics disappointingly get the shaft. Who was Roger Ebert, the wunderkind who talked his way into a full staff writer gig for the local paper while still in high school? Who was Roger Ebert, the freshly hired Chicago Sun-Times reporter who essentially had the position of film critic forced upon him and won a Pulitzer for it less than a decade later? And what of his famous spat with Time Magazine film critic Richard Corliss, who proclaimed the work of Siskel and Ebert to be more like consumer advice than professional criticism? James reduces Corliss to a mere talking head in "Life Itself," allowing little more than a short remembrance before moving on.

It's not that I don't understand the bind James was undoubtedly in, trying to hit all those points. I just wanted more.

Maybe that makes "Life Itself" a little messy, a little imperfect as it heads to its triumphant finish line. How ultimately fitting for a movie about Roger Ebert, a man whose flaws were vast in a life that nevertheless contained multitudes. And what multitudes this movie captures! We choke up at Martin Scorsese confessing he carried in his pocket for years a clipping of Ebert's positive review of his debut film "Who's That Knocking At My Door." We wince at but ultimately embrace footage of nurses using a suction tube to clean the large hanging flap of skin where his jaw used to be. And we just laugh at the story involving Ebert, Siskel, and an airline pilot.

Like James' classic documentary "Hoop Dreams," which Ebert famously championed, "Life Itself" transcends its very subject, becoming less about a man who harnessed the power of a thumb and more about basic human will. Death looms unmistakably and unavoidably over this movie, but not shying away renders it all the more powerful. 

One hysterical flashback clip from their show features Siskel loudly wishing for more people today with blood boiling in their veins. He's getting a solid dig at Protestants (as opposed to Jews and Catholics). But at least he had the man sitting next to him. And, if only for the movie's running time, "Life Itself" made me want to be someone with blood boiling in my veins too.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Is A Triumphant Example Of Hollywood Getting It Right

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (directed by Matt Reeves, 2014)

First things first: "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes" is an inappropriate title. The previous movie was called "RISE Of The Planet Of The Apes." You can technically rise before the dawn. But why would you? Nope. It makes no sense. Flip it.

Thankfully this is my only major complaint. While the first (exceptional) installment from 2011 in this newly dusted off series rose to its lack of occasion, this one soars past its already major occasion, topping its predecessor in every conceivable way. Not only is a great summer blockbuster (which is a patronizing way of saying it's good, but c'mon), but it's just a triumphant movie, full on, no exceptions. 

A superb blend of visual wizardry, economical storytelling, straightforward action, and parable, it calls into question what the hell other mainstream movies think they're doing.

Some critics seem keen to label "Dawn," with apes and humans laying claim to their own pieces of the word and no one willing to concede, as a redressing of Israel versus Palestine. And that's fine. You can certainly make that argument. I think a more general take feels appropriate - the idea of two parties convinced of their rightness even as violence escalates isn't exactly specific to one time or place. But therein lies what makes "Dawn" special. It is whatever you want it to be. Read between the lines if your heart desires; director Matt Reeves and screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver probably welcome it. Or pour a tub of artificially flavored popcorn and stay for the spectacle of apes riding on horseback while brandishing firearms.

This is a multilayered movie where you can't see the layers, all seamlessly integrated with temerity and fierce intelligence. And it's the perfect kind of intelligence, if that makes any sense. It's smart in the way that, for example, "The Dark Knight" is smart, or any great piece of pop art is smart. It's got big-tent brains, with a conceit clear enough that anyone who's willing can get in on the conversation, but not so overbearing that it ever feels like a chore.

For all the ape-on-human and ape-on-ape carnage promised in the trailers, "Dawn" is a surprisingly thoughtful movie and a patient one at that, revealing itself gradually and subtlety volleying our alliances until we accept the immutable fact that both sides in any conflict can be as right as they are wrong. As the movie opens with a swift recap of the ten years separating the previous movie and this one, mankind is rendered all but obsolete, and indeed we spend the first 15 minutes entirely with the apes, occupying a section of forest outside the San Francisco bay which feels positively Edenesque. This is our world. These are our protagonists. When humans first enter the picture, it's positively jarring - a rupture in what we've come to expect.

It's the first instance in the movie where Reeves switches viewpoints, but it won't be the last, and just as surely as "Dawn" juggles spectacle and meditation, so does it juggle our allegiances. Reeves and his writers rarely feel content to peg anyone into de facto roles of hero and villain. Everyone kind of has a point. Led by Caesar (Andy Serkis, once again topping himself in a motion captured performance), the apes don't want to exterminate mankind so much as lay rightful claim to what's their's after a lifetime of servitude. And the humans, even when they push back, react less with malice and more with the instinctual desire to protect their species' very existence. 

There are no easy answers. There are no easy solutions. And when the movie arrives at its triumphant final shot, it's with the rare ellipses not designed to shamelessly set up a sequel, but with the honest inevitability of the ongoing. Sometimes all we have, ape and human alike, are the individual choices we make now which lead us into whatever comes next.

And all this comes couched in such a visceral experience! Armed with a tactile sense for the visual, Reeves tells his story with a sort of sensitive aggressiveness, pausing to observe even as he plows on through, with a motto that shuns "Here it is" in favor of "Here you are" (wait for the killer single over-the-shoulder take of an ape as it captains a tank). This world doesn't feel created. It feels lived in. It feels dirty. It feels like the result of all that came before. And this also owes no small thanks to Serkis who, along with the visual effects team, infuses a talking ape with, how else to put it, a soul.

If there's any mild disappoint in the climax, which favors summer movies' usual "epic fight makes things crash down" pattern, that's only due to its own expectations. "Dawn" merely works because it's wickedly exciting and visually sweeping. It resonates because behind it all lies a conscience.

Monday, July 28, 2014

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY Has Just The Right Amount Of Everything

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (directed by James Gunn, 2014)

To paraphrase "The Simpsons," there's only one thing for "Guardians Of The Galaxy" to do at a moment like this. Strut.

Confident without being cocky, heartfelt without being cloying, and fun without being mechanical, this work from director and cowriter James Gunn effectively kicks open the door to the Marvel machine and becomes the life of the party, oozing honest-to-god swagger.

Maybe it's the best yet from Marvel Studios. Maybe it isn't. But it's their one above all whose universe I can't wait to return to. This is the kind of movie you want to hang out with.

What's damn near miraculous about "Guardians" is you feel by the end that it's exactly the kind of movie it set out to be. Think about what a gargantuan effort your average $100+ million comic book movie is. The multiple scriptwriters ensuring everything fits the studio's grander vision. The massive sets requiring attention now or the massive green screens requiring CGI later. The marketing blitz to ensure you think the movie is a required event even if you secretly don't care. 

You need not know how sausage is made to slice one open and see it ain't natural.

And yet "Guardians" seems less like the product of its parts than the result of a vision (in this case Gunn's). No visibly moving cogs. Just the kind of crisp, clean work you get when one creative center sits his team down and says, "You know what movies don't do enough? Get things right. Lets get everything right."

Crisp and clean. That's how I described "Guardians." But now also consider how friggin' dense this world is. This is not a timid movie when it comes to imagination. Gunn and his team created a world you want to play around in. Explore. Return to over and over to catch what you missed the first time. 

And yet it all feels completely organic. Consider, for example, the "Star Wars" prequels (easy movies to take random shots at, my apologies). George Lucas absolutely crammed detail into the backgrounds of those movies like he could only buy visual effects in bulk from Costco. Any one shot, you could delve into with a magnifying glass. But to what end? Just because you can throw things on screen doesn't mean you should.

"Guardians" understands this and starts with a universe that feels like it already exists, working from the inside out as it brings everything to life. Sweeping, panoramic shots of these creations don't feel gratuitous or show-offy. They feel earned. To call "Guardians" beautiful isn't quite correct. It's specifically beautiful.

That's the setting. Now lets move on to what's in it. We've seen Marvel movies and know the broad strokes (evil villain, MacGuffin setting everything in motion, unwilling heroes that eventually accept their fate, colossal climax with I guess the fate of everything at stake). That's the window dressing. That's not the point. When we talk about "Guardians," we talk about attitude. Ultimately here is a movie giddy with its own existence, a movie that not only portrays characters with charming swagger but joins in and mirrors them.

By the time the usual explosive battle for the universe or whatever arrives, Gunn waves these major stakes aside with casual, even ballsy, indifference. "Guardians" cares not for such trivial things. Here is the rare third act in a comic book movie where everything big goes more or less according to plan, and what really matters boils down to character.

So where does that leave us? Five core characters whose basic elements and interactions you can likely glean from the trailers - brash, wannabe Han Solo-type Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, becoming a movie star before your eyes), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the potentially lethal but bound by righteousness alien, the humorously literal Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper), who fancies himself a badass despite majorly overcompensating, and a tree (Vin Diesel) whose name is Groot and has no qualms about reminding you of this. Creating five unique characters is one thing. Creating five unique characters who at first seem to only be types is something else entirely.

All five of these misfits embody a specific trait designed to sell easily in a preview, but Gunn isn't content to let these traits be the endpoint. Instead it's a stepping stone, leading us to what they're hiding beneath. Gunn doesn't allow anyone to remain their own bullet point. He starts with the basics, fleshes them out, and by the time we reach a roundtable scene marking the end of Act II where they discuss an impending battle plan, it's staged with the joy of five carefully drawn individuals repeatedly stealing the scene from each other.

Ultimately I'm just so happy this movie exists. I really am. I'm happy it's so funny, bring much needed levity to a genre that forgets it's about men in costume running away from green screens. I'm happy Chris Pratt now has a movie career that can last as long as he wants. I'm happy we have a summer blockbuster with such a freewheeling sense of fun that's infectious instead of forced. 

"Guardians Of The Galaxy" throws down the gauntlet. Here's where the Marvel Cinematic Universe can go, folks. No turning back now.

Friday, May 30, 2014

A Million Ways To Die, But Precious Few Laughs

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST (directed by Seth MacFarlane, 2014)

Seth MacFarlane specializes in Whitman's Samplers of comedy. Keep digging, and sooner or later you'll find a joke you enjoy.

Unfortunately, in the case of "A Million Ways To Die In The West," he plays to an audience of mostly diabetics.

Hot off his smash 2012 directorial debut "Ted," "A Million Ways" sports all the makings of a passion project for MacFarlane - the sort of sprawling, big budget comedy he can make after earning so much money directly out of the gate. Why else cast himself as the leading man, in addition to directing and co-writing, after a 15 year career spent largely behind the scenes? 

Because he can, that's why. Not to knock the guy. That he took this long to step in front of the camera, after spending much of his 30s doing everything else, shows impressive restraint. And he needn't have worried anyway. As a movie star, he brings a completely nonthreatening presence. He doesn't spin gold, but he doesn't embarrass himself either. The same sort of effortless charm you'd expect this deep in a career whose success is rather remarkable considering how many comedy fans fantasize about his head on a stick.

His entire career is really an exercise in conundrums. Does he want to be an old school ENTERTAINER, telling consciously lame one-liners and crooning the standards with utmost sincerity? Does he want to swim in the shallow wading pool of shit and dick jokes? Or possibly be the savior of intellectualism in modern America, blending low and high comedy with aplomb (anyone who's caught him on "Real Time With Bill Maher" knows he ain't no slouch, brains-wise)? 

Such questions extend to "A Million Ways." It's a movie that can't decide quite what it wants to be, so it decides to be nothing. As said, MacFarlane stars as Albert, a cowardly sheep farmer in an upstart 1882 Arizona town whose girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried in a nothing role that exists purely to spark conflict) leaves him after he backs out of a duel. Soon she's in the arms of another man, local mustachioed gentleman Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, twirling his 'stache to utmost evil glee), leaving a distraught Albert to wallow in the misery that is the Old West. All until the mysterious and beautiful Anna (Charlize Theron). She's beautiful. She's an expert gunslinger. She also falls for MacFarlane, because MarFarlane made the movie. 

All this plus she's the wife of feared outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson, tearing into his underwritten role with the menace of a professional actor doing his job). Does Albert get the girl? Does he face his fears and learn to unload a firearm? 

No prizes for guessing. You know how this ends. We all know how this ends. That's not the point. Plot exists as a mere clothesline in a comedy such as this. And the problem isn't that MacFarlane (with cowriters Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild) brought nothing to hang. It's that he brought too much. For its ungodly 116 minute running time, "A Million Ways" is one shockingly undisciplined major summer release. Any single ten minute chunk might contain a shot of semen stuck to a prostitute's face, a brassy song-and-dance number that brings the movie to a halt as Harris extols the virtues of mustaches, extended sweeps of frontier vistas that fill the 2.35:1 frame, a spot-on and legitimately witty reference to Stephen Foster, or a man shitting in not one but two hats. It awkwardly bounces between at least three different subplots with zero structure, all of them just sort of happening until the other one happens.

There's no rhyme or reason to "A Million Ways." It boasts all the laser focus of a visually impaired child set loose in the bumper cars for the first time. Given MacFarlane's clear antipathy for the plot, one wonders if he would have preferred to ditch everything and shoot an outright sketch comedy. What's particularly frustrating is the ingredients are here for any number of individual good movies if he just chose a path and stayed on it. 

MacFarlane shows clear intoxication with the idea of making a western, and indeed, he and cinematographer Michael Barrett shoot the everloving mess out of Monument Valley, John Ford's favorite playground. Genuinely well-framed landscape shots. Helicopter sweeps that work overtime. Granted, a great deal of the major seems to be owed to color correction in the editing room, but the pieces remain. As a director, though, MacFarlane tends to linger on these epic elements a bit too long, meaning they oddly clash with the more intimate story he's telling, almost mocking the decidedly un-epic nature of his final product.

Then the gross out gags, which he employs ready and willing. He just doesn't know how to sell them. There's the old rule in comedy best exemplified by the Sideshow Bob rake scene on "The Simpsons" (or, to be more apropos, the campfire in "Blazing Saddles"): If you pull a stupid gag, it starts off stupid, but if you're willing to keep going, the laughs come from sheer "Oh my god, they're still doing this" nerve. You build and build to a moment of perfect desperation, then (this is key) you get out. MacFarlane knows a stupid gag as well as anyone, but he's yet to master the fine art of knowing when to stop. Maybe we'll see a sheep's erect penis and that's the entire joke because, hey, sheep penis. Or on the flip side, a poisoned Neil Patrick Harris will suffer severe diarrhea in a scene that flatly goes on...and on...and then on again. 

Finally, the real tragedy: "A Million Ways To Die In The West" fails to live up to its basic premise. Portraying the Old West as an awful, desolate place full of misery is an inspired concept - not since Warren Beatty failed to open a whorehouse in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" has the western been so devoid of heroism. Too bad MacFarlane continually forgets this, and outside of a hilarious early monologue in a bar and an amusing trip to the county fair, it's a well he visits too few and far between. In fact, for oddly long stretches, he seems to forget he's even making a comedy. Comedy, and I'm pretty sure this is a legal definition, has "jokes." MacFarlane and his writers are often content to coast on their defiantly anachronistic take on the 1800s, rendering "A Million Ways" less a comedy where people do and say funny things and more a comedy of attitude, where people only act funny. 

TV sitcoms like MacFarlane's "Family Guy" and "American Dad" are a volume business. Bits of an episode, or even the entire episode, might flop, but that's OK - there will be more in the season. Feature length comedies aren't so lucky. This is their one chance. They require rigorous, brutal precision and pacing cut to the bone. If it loses its audience for too long, those negative feelings become palpable and the movie must work like hell to earn us back. "A Million Ways To Die In The West" contains moments of inspired lunacy (wait for great gags involving President Lincoln or an unfortunately named shooting gallery and mourn the kind of movie this could have been). But to watch it is to increasingly feel that we're in the hands of a filmmaker who doesn't know where he's going. We don't trust him, and we don't trust the film.

So many better ways, this movie could have gone. If only MacFarlane didn't undercut his better instincts. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Uproarious NEIGHBORS Rises Above Simple "Bros Vs. Hos"

NEIGHBORS (directed by Nicholas Stoller, 2014)

(NOTE: This review originally appeared on Daniel Johnson's blog Film Babble)

Well how 'bout that. Lend it to this silly battle of Seth Rogen versus Zac Efron to produce the unofficial State Of The American Comedy. Raucously funny, tightly paced, and oddly thoughtful without being oppressively so, "Neighbors" is one of those comedies where so much of what matters clicks, you're even willing to forgive the few parts that don't.

If it carries with it any sort of dread, it's only the countdown to the inevitable horrible sequel that doesn't understand any part of what made the original special.

An oddly omnipresent theme in recent comedies, particularly those produced or directed by Judd Apatow, is the need for adolescent males to leave their childish habits behind. The 40-year-old virgin accepted that he could no longer substitute action figures for companionship. Rogen in "Knocked Up" didn't shirk the lifetime of responsibilities from his one-night stand. Instead of moping over his break-up in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (also, like "Neighbors," directed by Nicholas Stoller), Jason Segel focuses his energy into his dream project about puppet vampires. 

It's a simple concept, getting surprising mileage because each of these respective movies seems to genuinely believe what it's preaching. And it's not without lineage. If, as everyone suggests, Apatow is the closest we have to a Harold Ramis heir, then his movies are a direct continuation of Ramis' "snobs vs. slobs" classics ("Stripes," "Animal House," etc). Not an exact echo, mind you. Just carrying the torch further down the road - Apatow's movies relish the sight of grown men getting into mischief, but they invariably arrive at the point in the third act when enough is enough and it's time to grow up.

So where does that leave "Neighbors" here in 2014? On the surface, you have a classic Ramis battle. A rowdy frat house (led by a shockingly adept Efron), whose bongs puff smoke with the same thoroughness as their stereos blast loud music, move in to the house next to a young newlywed couple (Rogen and Rose Byrne). The bros dreams of partytime antics so legendary, they can land on their frat's wall of fame. The young couple wants nothing more than blissful, suburban peace for themselves and their infant daughter. Snobs and slobs, enter the ring!

Wait a sec, though. Stoller immediately subverts expectations by casting Rogen not as the stoner party animal, but as half of the husband/wife team. That's right. Seth Rogen, once among the freakiest of the "Freaks And Geeks," now convincingly stands as a movie's bastion of adulthood. Essentially, Stoller and screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien take their standard Ramis frame, plug in Apatow's favorite Boy Who Must Grow Up into the role of Boy Who Already IS Grown Up, and make that character and his wife the audience surrogate. And are the couple's demands really that extreme? They're not against partying. Hell, the movie opens with them brazenly having sex in the living room while their wide-eyed child gazes on. They're just trying to create a normal life for themselves in the process.

Ultimately this results in neither a Ramis cautionary tale of excess partying (where there are no consequences) or an Apatow cautionary tale of excess adolescence (where there are no consequences for a while, until there are), but an impressive summation of both. There is where American comedy was. "Neighbors" shows you where it leads. 

All the more impressive is that Stoller doesn't club you over the head with this either. With each passing movie he grows more skilled as a true director of comedy. Not a mere assembler of scenes, but a director. A director makes the hard choices. He knows when to let his talented performers riff, and more importantly, he knows when to judiciously bring the editing blade down. The movie contains a few fantastic examples of actors running with a concept (witness Efron and frat brother Dave Franco's bit on bros vs. hos), but it still runs a tight 96 minutes and damn well means it. Apart from any scholarly examination you or I might bring to the table, this is fundamentally a movie that sprouts from a solid concept, embodies it with distinct characterizations, then honestly follows those characters and that concept as far as they go.

A comedy that decided what it wanted to be and made choices along the way to make that happen.

And by the end, Stoller and his team prove themselves adept at the fine art of having their cake and eating it too. After two acts that take great relish in the joy of watching mischief, an uneasy feeling began a-boiling in my stomach. Stoller and his writers overall did a nice job of adding layers to their characters along the way - Efron fears graduating college and entering a world where he doesn't matter, while Rogen and Byrne worry that becoming a couple who just wants a night of peace with their kid means their youth is effectively killed. All this works nicely as background to the action. But will "Neighbors" unfortunately remember that a story requires an end, and then fall into the trap of blatantly Imparting A Lesson? 

What makes "Neighbors" so impressive is as it arrives at the finish line, it manages to simultaneously hit the gas while leaning on the brakes. The bawdy, lets-have-a-good-time nature of the movie never lets up. If anything, it only escalates. But Stoller ultimately never sides with anyone, and he takes a step back with these characters, by now so well established, and allows us to see things from everyone's point of view. 

When Rogen and Byrne finally lie in bed in the end and lovingly coo over such boring things as the smell of freshly ground coffee, it plays not as a joke. "Neighbors" means it. But when Efron gazes at the extremest of the extreme party he hath wrought as a source of genuine pride and accomplishment, it plays not as a moment of pity. "Neighbors" means that too. Stoller never actively judges nor supports any one character. Instead he has the temerity to suggest they might both be right, a concept he subtly weaves between the laughs. There's a place for partying, there's a place for adulthood, and they both matter.

One hell of a juggling act, this movie is. It's a high concept comedy that never becomes overwhelmed by the concept. It's a loving embodiment of both the Ramis and Apatow schools of comedy while simultaneously tweaking the formulas in both small and meaningful ways (lets not gloss over the fact that instead of a shrill nag, the lead female is Rogen's equal partner in crime). And it's a movie that will make you cackle to the point of missing lines.

All "Neighbors" had to do was make us laugh. How nice that it decided to do more.