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.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 Proves Leftovers Can Taste Decent When You Pretend

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (directed by Marc Webb, 2014)

"That's good. That's like a 40-degree day. Ain't nobody got nothing to say about a 40-degree day. Fifty. Bring a smile to your face. Sixty, shit, ni**as is damn near barbecuing on that motherfucker. Go down to 20, ni**as get their bitch on. Get their blood complaining. But forty? Nobody give a fuck about 40. Nobody remember 40, and y'all ni**as is giving me way too many 40-degree days! What the fuck?" 
--Stringer Bell, "The Wire"

May's warm climates might be descending upon us, but make no mistake. Theaters showing "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" stand at a firm 40 degrees. 

Coldly calculated to neither delight nor disgust, this second installment in director Marc Webb's Spidey series hits a drive straight down the middle. You can almost feel the cynical pencil strokes of Sony executives checking off target audiences to appeal to, requisite superhero beats to hit, and brief references to other Spider-Man characters/villains as they blatantly begin to build their own world.

"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" doesn't kick start the summer movie season as much as it politely knocks on the door.

And yet there's such goofy, amiable charm to this thing, a mix of sound, fury, and punchiness that can't entirely be denied, no matter how hard you try. It's like the high school jock who turns out to be a pretty nice guy. You want to hate him. He's everything you aren't. But then he smiles at you and remembers your name, and oh well, you'll let him cut in front of you in the cafeteria one more time. 

Webb and his series' biggest hurdle, one they haven't quite surmounted yet, is the simple question of "Why?" Why reboot the character when Sam Raimi's and Tobey Maguire's trilogy barely stopped twitching in the ground? OK - the obvious hard truth is money. But lets for a moment pretend we live in a world where summer tentpoles aren't entirely business transactions and move on. When Webb's first "Amazing Spider-Man" hit in 2012, it had so much going for it, you were willing to forgive what it lacked. It was sunny. It was funny in an easygoing way. And its secret weapon hidden in plain sight, the natural chemistry between stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone.  

Not exactly stuff to reinvent the wheel. But stuff to lay the foundation. 

Now here we are, the first sequel. Heavy lifting's done, and it's time to put up or shut up. Anticipation is high, especially when you recall the delirious dazzlements Raimi brought to his "Spider-Man 2" when his shackles were off and he could run free. The problem with Webb's movie isn't that it regresses. It's that it stalls. It doesn't want to risk whatever minor successes it already accomplished in the first one.

This doesn't make it a bad movie, per se. Just an irritatingly safe one. Individual moments do pop, such as a dizzying opening action sequence where Spider-Man chases down a van carrying stolen plutonium through the streets of New York. But nothing matching such sublime moments from Raimi's part 2 as Peter Parker skipping to the tune of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" or Spider-Man, mask removed, stopping a runaway subway car as it nearly careens off the track.

To illustrate what makes "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" so frustrating, lets return to that aforementioned opening sequence, which is so pitch-perfect, you want to give yourself to the movie from then on. Webb's confident staging of action and Peter Parker's sheer joy in being Spider-Man, offering wiseass banter as he taunts the bad guys, converge in a way that feels perfectly suited to what Webb's vision for the series seems to be - light-on-its-feet charm embodying how cool it would be to be young and have superpowers.

Indeed this sequence is the epitome of Webb's abilities, and if it's a tone in search of a purpose, what follows is a purpose in search of a movie. Seeing what Webb is capable of makes it all the more sad to see him handcuffed from then on. His screenwriters, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci cowrote, among other things, last summer's "Star Trek Into Darkness," and for all that movie's detractors, one thing you can not accuse it of is playing it safe. Ballsy and at times downright weird, it represented at least a new way to build on the goodwill established in a successful franchise reboot. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" takes no such risks, not when there's checks to cash. Orci, Kurtzman, and Webb (along with writer Jeff Pinkner) tell less of a story and more of a series of events. Electro (played by Jamie Foxx) never registers as a villain, instead representing but one more obstacle in Peter Parker's quest to the end credits. Moments don't lead to moments and dialogue doesn't lead to dialogue; instead coincidences lead to other coincidences. This happened because this needs to happen because this needs to happen because this is the studio's plan for their franchise.

It's as if everyone lost their shooting script and instead worked with a third draft outline completed with the aid of a teacher from a screenwriting seminar.

And yet here we are - for all the mechanical faults in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," it's a movie I enjoyed both in spite of what it is and because of what it is. Lets face facts. Superhero movies are an immovable force, made for gazillions of dollars because they make gazillions of dollars back. Even the most reputable reviewer is reduced to a figure shaking his fist at the rain.

If you want to see the movie, you likely will. I can't stop what's coming. All I can do is throw my hands in the air and ask if my life is ultimately worse for having seen it. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is a movie built in a lab, basically one big commercial for upcoming movies set in the Spider-Man universe. Yet the overall giddiness and enthusiasm just barely makes me not regret my time spent.

"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is grammatically correct. The "Amazing" Spider-Man 2 is more appropriate. But no need to get sarcastic.