Monday, July 18, 2016

Ghostbusters


GHOSTBUSTERS (Paul Feig, 2016)

There’s something strange in the neighborhood, namely the matter of the GHOSTBUSTERS remake (or reboot or however this film is positioned as brand extension) becoming a cultural flashpoint, at least in the online realm where all sorts of unpleasant things become manifest. Apparently for some the 1984 Ivan Reitman film has taken on the status of sacred writ such that making a version with women in the main roles is likened to heresy. Maybe demons are real if a special effects comedy bolstered by a flippant Bill Murray represents the last line of defense, a cinematic Alamo to rally around. The original GHOSTBUSTERS is funny but hardly the pinnacle of film as an art. Reworking it with a women as the heroes is surely not a bellwether of men or male-driven entertainment becoming maligned in Hollywood.

The 2016 iteration of GHOSTBUSTERS written by Katie Dippold and director Paul Feig unfolds roughly in the same way as its source but with a few variations. Physicist Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) has buried her past in paranormal research as she seeks tenure at Columbia University. The ill-timed online availability of the book she wrote about ghosts and the like with Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) prompts her to visit her formerly close friend with the hope of getting it pulled to preserve her reputation. In the intervening years Abby has continued to investigate the supernatural with engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Abby agrees to take the book out of circulation if Erin will tag along to check out a nearby historical site reporting some ghostly activity.

The field work reawakens Erin’s once deeply-held beliefs in the metaphysical, but online video of the trio’s celebration after spotting an evil spirit leads to their professional ruination. They decide to use their unemployment as an opportunity to expand upon their research and go into business. They hire Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), a handsome but exceedingly dumb receptionist, and take on another partner in Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), a Metro Transit Authority worker who has seen other ghosts in the subway system and can provide a car for hauling their bulky equipment. Even when they obtain seemingly incontrovertible proof of paranormal activity, skeptics continue to doubt them.

Having rewatched the original GHOSTBUSTERS within the last two years, it’s abundantly clear that Murray runs away with that film and doesn’t leave much for his other proton pack-carrying pals to do. This new GHOSTBUSTERS has standout performances, but overall there is more balance among the members of the team. Wiig doubles down on Erin’s awkward and relatively unassuming nature to get laughs. McCarthy brings child-like enthusiasm as a scientist who is thrilled at how cool it is to have her theories validated and test new, amazing technology. Jones adds the common perspective as she funnily and sensibly reacts to the unbelievable things she encounters. These Ghostbusters aren’t just Murray and a bunch of hangers-on.

Nevertheless, McKinnon and Hemsworth are implicated in stealing scenes in GHOSTBUSTERS. McKinnon’s dry performance suggests that Holtzmann may have spent too much time working in isolation and exposed to radiation. She is the embodiment of the weird last sketch on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, like a singer trying to perform a piece in a key or that exists only in her head. Hemsworth builds up the hilarity of Kevin’s blithe idiocy by playing it straight and with unwavering directness. Like McKinnon’s Holtzmann, his character seems to mentally occupy another plane of existence.

GHOSTBUSTERS gets bound up too much in plot development and drags when all hell literally breaks loose in Manhattan. The big special effects moments really are secondary to letting the funny women run with the material. It’s a solid, amiable mainstream comedy, which, in the end, is all that its inspiration was too.

Grade: B

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates


MIKE AND DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES (Jake Szymanski, 2016)

The Stangle brothers know how to have a good time at family gatherings, which is exactly why the rest of their family insists they bring stabilizing guests with them to their sister’s impending nuptials in MIKE AND DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES. Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac Efron) tend to wind one another up and indiscriminately hit on women at family functions, so the hope is that requiring them to bring dates when Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard) marries Eric (Sam Richardson) will keep them from ruining the big day.

Mike and Dave love their sister and want to do right by her. They place an ad on Craigslist that goes viral and appear on a television talk show with the aim of finding the perfect women to accompany them to the destination wedding. A free trip to Hawaii attracts all sorts of eager applicants, although the brothers manage to have the good sense to realize that these particular women are probably bad choices. Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick) are wild partiers looking for an adventure and thus not the nice, steady types who are supposed to be picked. Nevertheless, they get selected after conspiring to bump into Mike and Dave under the pretense of being sweet, responsible professionals who are unaware of the island vacation that awaits those who make the best impression on the brothers.

The tables are turned on the Stangle boys, as they gradually become aware that they have brought the female versions of themselves to the wedding. While some humor is found in observing the wreckage Tatiana and Alice create in MIKE AND DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES, this comedy tends to equate funniness with the volume at which people are speaking. The operating principle seems to be that nearly everything is more amusing if it is being yelled. (For the record, it isn’t.)

MIKE AND DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES tries mightily to trade on the energy and appeal of its cast. Despite their willingness to go for broke, the film has little to offer beyond a lot of overly familiar or borrowed gags, one of which is essentially copped to on screen as being lifted from WEDDING CRASHERS. I don’t know how much was scripted and how much was improvised on set, but the recurring use of montages hint at an effort to patch together something from ad libs. MIKE AND DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES consists mostly of concept. The rest is dog-paddling to last long enough to capture sufficient footage to assemble.

The general laziness aside, the lack of definition to the core characters stands out as a clear weakness. The performances by the main four show the strain of trying to compensate for little to work with. Plaza emerges most unscathed, perhaps because her apathetic screen persona comes across almost like a knowing dismissal of the film from within. Kendrick is woefully underserved, in part because the film doesn’t really know who her altar-jilted party girl is. The flimsily-conceived Mike and Dave leave Devine trying to fill the void by sheer force of will while Efron gets the thankless task of playing the one learning life lessons. MIKE AND DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES coasts on fleet pacing and residual appreciation for the primary cast, which is another way of saying it’s running on fumes.

Grade: C

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Dressed to Kill


DRESSED TO KILL (Brian De Palma, 1980)

Bringing up Alfred Hitchcock as an influence on Brian De Palma’s films is the most obvious way to start the discussion, yet in the case of DRESSED TO KILL it is virtually impossible to consider the thriller outside the context of a major shaping element. The film works on a fundamental level as lurid entertainment in which sex and murder intersect, yet the writer-director’s referencing of and conversation with Hitchcock’s films, one most significantly, is so intertwined in DRESSED TO KILL that to ignore it is like discounting DNA evidence. There may be another way to analyze what is presented, but the process is going to be far more difficult and suffer some inaccuracies.

To get specific about the plot is to spoil the surprises De Palma has in store for the audience. Suffice it to say that the film revolves around five characters in New York City. Housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) seeks counsel from psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) for a solution to her unsatisfactory sex life with her husband. Her clever son Peter (Keith Gordon) puts his technological ingenuity to work to try and solve a homicide. Hooker Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) happens upon a murder scene in which she accidentally touches the razor used to butcher the victim, potentially implicating her in the crime and making her another target for the killer. Dr. Elliott is also linked to the killing when he learns his transsexual patient Bobbi, for whom he refuses to approve a sex change operation, stole his razor and used it as the murder weapon.

Hitchcock’s FRENZY provides an idea of how the content of his films might have become more graphic under a more permissive ratings system. With the shocking nature of the sex and violence in DRESSED TO KILL, particularly in the director’s preferred unrated cut, De Palma presents what such a hypothetical film might look like. Doubles and reflections figure prominently in De Palma’s visual strategy in his mirror version of a Hitchcock movie. For the characters in DRESSED TO KILL it is not enough just to see; they must be able to comprehend what is being seen. As the same applies to the audience, De Palma is being rather confrontational with the essence of cinema itself, requiring a voyeuristic look at the erotic and horrific and expecting them to be understood beyond prurient and savage curiosity.

Plot peevers will have a field day with the logical gaps in DRESSED TO KILL, but fantasy sequences, Pino Donaggio’s lush score, and the general air of unreality clearly point toward De Palma’s intention for the film to be enjoyed as amplified drama. It thrives on the excitement of flirting with the illicit, such as the bravura scene at the art museum when Kate follows a handsome stranger, pauses to rethink her actions, and then resumes her pursuit of him. Although the scene is nearly wordless, the passion driving it requires no dialogue. DRESSED TO KILL operates on the intuitive knowledge of acting on impulse.

As unnerving as parts of it can be, a wicked sense of humor runs through DRESSED TO KILL. A moan of pleasure mingles with a car horn. (There’s another tip of the hat to Hitchcock.) A frank description of a surgical procedure is overheard by a woman in the background, who displays a variety of appalled expressions as those in the foreground carry on as if it’s ordinary dinner banter. One of the biggest laughs comes from the close-up of a letter from the Department of Health. Especially as it becomes more apparent what film De Palma has essentially remade, the sheer audacity of the entire enterprise tickles.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Swiss Army Man


SWISS ARMY MAN
(Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, 2016)

Alone and stranded on an island somewhere in the Pacific, Hank (Paul Dano) has lost all hope and is about to kill himself when a body washes up on the shore in SWISS ARMY MAN. The corpse is especially flatulent and thus can serve as a makeshift jet ski for Hank to ride back to the continent. The journey is just partially complete, though. Hank still has to make his way through California’s coastal wilderness to civilization, assuming he can muster the will to press on. Lucky for him, the dead body he totes with him functions as a multi-tool and, when Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) starts to talk, a companion.

Manny hasn’t retained any knowledge, so he relies on Hank for an education about the world. Manny also has no frame of reference for social cues, so he encourages Hank to stop bottling up the feelings and embarrassing bodily expulsions. Hank talks about his own past as though he left behind a life filled with loneliness and heartbreak. Based on flashbacks and the picture on his smart phone’s lock screen, a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) plays a major factor in his sadness and his desire to go home. Manny mistakes the phone for his, and when he sees her photo and is told about love, he believes that it is his purpose to return to her.

With its decidedly quaint style and sensitive protagonist, SWISS ARMY MAN risks twee overload, but the offbeat humor and the actors help to keep the affectations from making the film into something overly precious. The scatological jokes keep Hank’s painful sincerity in check, as does Manny’s innocent bluntness. Writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert empathize with Hank and want the character to be more at ease with his weirdness, but to their credit, they don’t treat the odd aspects of him as being immune from distancing others. SWISS ARMY MAN accepts Hank for who he is and wants him to do the same, with the understanding others won’t always validate his unusual qualities. He’s special in his own way, but he can’t expect everyone to like it.

Dano does fine work in showing Hank’s vulnerability, particularly with how he lets down his guard with Manny. Belief is suspended in this absurd scenario because Dano opens up so tenderly to this talking corpse and becomes reliant on Manny as if he’s an imaginary friend who has taken physical form. In explaining to Manny how feelings and relationships work, Hank is better able to comprehend how he has failed at dealing with these things. Dano’s performance is touching when, through Manny, he can reflect how he observes and wants to be seen. Radcliffe’s acting as Manny produces a glorious mix of physical comedy and deadpan line delivery. The pure, matter-of-fact way he asks awkward questions and offers uncomfortable suggestions softens the crudity and makes such things all the funnier. Radcliffe comports himself like a ventriloquist’s dummy, which also heightens the comedy in his reactions and statements.

Although SWISS ARMY MAN is undeniably strange, it isn’t perhaps as original as it might sound from the description. Kwan and Scheinert are working in a similar domain as Michel Gondry, who, like them, also transitioned from music videos to feature films. Like Gondry’s ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP, Kwan and Scheinert use unconventional means, not to mention all the handcrafted items, to look at self-doubt and romantic frustration. Even if SWISS ARMY MAN doesn’t blaze a new trail, the filmmakers have succeeded at making something distinct, funny, and curiously affecting.

Grade: B

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence


INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE (Roland Emmerich, 2016)

Movie theaters have been chockablock with ill-advised and hard-to-justify sequels in 2016, so Roland Emmerich’s bid to make a franchise out of INDEPENDENCE DAY seems like business as usual for Hollywood. Still, it’s some feat that INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE feels like a rush job even though twenty years have passed between the original and this sequel. Will Smith does not return, leaving his character’s absence to be explained with about as much elegance as Poochie being written off THE ITCHY & SCRATCHY SHOW on THE SIMPSONS. Some of the special effects impress, but a number of scenes don’t look much different than television dramas with conversations in front of chromakeyed backgrounds. The hash made from several weightless narrative threads does nothing to diminish the sense that this is a cash-in project timed to align with an anniversary ending in a zero.

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE picks up two decades after the events of humanity’s defeat of the alien invaders. Knowing that a common enemy is out there among the stars, the world has become a more peaceful and unified place. Scientists have reverse engineered alien technology to improve Earth’s defenses in the event that another attack comes. Former President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is haunted by the the previous battle and worries another is imminent. His fears are confirmed when scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), among others, discovers that a distress signal is being sent by the first mothership.

When an unidentified vessel appears at the moon defense base, the snap judgment among world leaders is to destroy it. This victory is short-lived, as a ship three thousand miles in diameter follows and begins drilling into the Earth in pursuit of the molten core. Those fighting for Earth Space Defense against the aliens include Patricia Whitmore (Maika Monroe), the onetime First Daughter and pilot who assists the current Commander-in-Chief; her fiancĂ© Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth); and her friend Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher), the stepson of Will Smith’s INDEPENDENCE DAY character.

The aliens wipe out the United States’ East Coast, London, and presumably much of Europe and Asia, yet the massive toll doesn’t register at all. The lack of impact could be attributed to scenes of spectacular destruction becoming commonplace in comic book films and the like, so the imagery of large-scale catastrophes has become overly familiar to moviegoers. Emmerich doesn’t help matters by putting no emotional investment in these sections. There isn’t really any proportional human reaction to the incomprehensible carnage that occurs. Emmerich dispenses with the faceless masses and fleetingly recalled characters from the first film as if he’s stepping on an ant colony. INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE goes even bigger than before, although perhaps not as near-extinction level as THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW or 2012, but the tragedy merits little more than a shrug of the shoulders.

Emmerich’s large-scale disaster films are knowingly outrageous and campy to a degree, and INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE is no different even as it verges on self-parody. Brent Spiner hams it up as Dr. Brakish Okun, who has been in a coma since the previous film. Judd Hirsch is back as Julius Levinson, the father of Goldblum’s character, and he brings some levity via his matter-of-fact acceptance of all the nonsense happening around him. Spiner and Hirsch’s performances demonstrate awareness that this is all big and dumb, so why not have fun with it? The rest of the film subtracts fun from the equation and substitutes it with an earnest insistence that a good time is being had. Emmerich’s salesmanship is not convincing.

Grade: D-

Friday, June 24, 2016

Hot Rod


HOT ROD (Akiva Schaffer, 2007)

In the comedy HOT ROD, Rod Kimble (Andy Samberg) aspires to be a stuntman like his deceased father, an assistant for Evel Knievel who died trying to get out of his boss’ shadow. Rod is using a moped to attempt jumps, so it may not take long for him to follow in his father’s footsteps in dying a horrible death. Rod also desperately wants to earn the respect of his stepfather Frank (Ian McShane), a tough old coot who withholds his love until Rod can beat him in a fight. When Rod is told Frank is in need of a heart transplant that insurance won’t cover, he decides to stage a 15-bus jump to raise money to save Frank’s life so he can beat him to a pulp.

Supporting Rod in his pursuit of stunt glory and charitable fundraising are his younger half-brother Kevin (Jorma Taccone), who is also team manager and videographer, and his friends Dave (Bill Hader) and Rico (Danny McBride), who builds ramps and oversees the explosives used for showmanship. Rod also invites his next-door neighbor and crush Denise (Isla Fisher) to join the crew. She has a soft spot for Rod and helps with his training regimen, but to his chagrin, she’s dating Jonathan (Will Arnett), whose loathsomeness she somehow hasn’t noticed.

Like WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER, HOT ROD successfully spoofs a film niche without requiring knowledge of what it’s sending up. In this instance the target is 1980s inspirational sports dramas about working class teenagers. As part of the meta humor about older actors playing high schoolers, like a 23-year-old Ralph Macchio in THE KARATE KID, Rod acts like a petulant adolescent but appears to be in his early twenties, although the character’s age is never clarified. The soundtrack swells to the bombastic music of Swedish hard rock band Europe, which establishes the period the film is trying to evoke even though it is seemingly set in the present day. Arnett hilariously plays every jerk boyfriend in teen movies standing in the way of the sensitive hero and the girl of his dreams.

The jokes favor the absurd over the referential. Rod’s punch-dancing scene in the forest calls back to Kevin Bacon doing something similar in FOOTLOOSE, but the weirdness of the comedy is paramount. That sequence concludes with Rod’s lengthy tumble down a hill. Director Akiva Schaffer extends the fall well past the usual point so that it becomes funnier as it seems like it may go on forever. The same strategy is at work with Samberg and Taccone’s surreal repetition of “cool beans” being transformed into a proto rap song. The exclamation points to scenes often break traditional rules of humor, and the punchy editing rhythm keeps the film moving without making it seem like a series of sketches.

HOT ROD was initially intended to be a Will Ferrell film. While the screenplay is attributed to Pam Brady from that version of the project, the uncredited rewriting by Samberg, Taccone, and Schaffer adapts the script to The Lonely Island’s sensibility. There’s no denying that much of what gets laughs in HOT ROD is dumb, but the creativity and rambunctious spirit build a lot of momentum. This very funny film is remarkably consistent because of the strange chances it takes.

Grade: A-

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Central Intelligence


CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2016)

Calvin “The Golden Jet” Joyner (Kevin Hart) was a star athlete, student, and all-around big man on campus at Central High School, but as his twentieth reunion approaches in CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE, he feels like his best days were when he was a teenager. Calvin married his high school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet) and is gainfully employed as an accountant, so it’s not like he’s a failure by any means; he just hasn’t done anything that would seem to fulfill being voted “most likely to succeed” by his classmates.

Calvin’s self-esteem gets a major boost when he meets up with Bob Stone (Dwayne Johnson), another class of 1996 member who thinks the world of him. During a high school assembly Calvin helped Bob, then going by his eminently mockable given name Robbie Weirdicht, preserve some dignity when he was the victim of a cruel prank. Beyond the name change, Bob has since undergone a major transformation. The once-tubby teen has traded the flab for muscle so that he looks like a beefy action figure in the flesh.

After a fun night of reminiscing Bob asks Calvin to check some accounts he’s been having trouble with. The next morning three CIA agents, led by Agent Pamela Harris (Amy Ryan), appear at Calvin’s front door looking for Bob, who they claim is a government operative gone rogue. When Bob turns up at Calvin’s workplace, he assures him that he’s really a good guy trying to stop terrorists from exchanging United States satellite codes. Calvin doesn’t want any part of this but finds himself dragged into it anyway.

When describing action comedies, charming isn’t the first word that typically comes to mind, although it suits CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE to a T. This very funny buddy movie is surprisingly sweet thanks in large part to Johnson. He looks like a superhuman warrior but portrays the character like a sensitive teenager on the inside. Bob’s reshaping of his body has not altered his tender soul. Johnson brings so much joy and enthusiasm in playing Bob like a child eager to win Calvin’s approval and show him what he can do. The humor stems from the disconnect between this hulking specimen of masculinity and his unabashed love of unicorns, SIXTEEN CANDLES, and 1990s girl groups, yet the film never judges him as being less manly because of his interests. Bob Stone is the character’s best self, and Johnson is a hoot as Bob demonstrates the confidence he’s gained since the most humiliating moment of his life.

Director Rawson Marshall Thurber doesn’t use the size difference between Johnson and Hart for comedy. Instead he relies upon the chemistry the two have playing off one another. Calvin is a reluctant participant when Bob and the CIA place him in uncomfortable situations. Hart milks Calvin’s confusion and mounting exasperation for all it’s worth, resisting in the limited ways available to him.

CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE doesn’t lack action sequences, but the showcase moments tend to be small and silly, like when a slap fight breaks out when Calvin and Bob role-play as husband and wife or when Calvin is forced to riff to distract an airport security guard while Bob steals a plane. This remarkably good-natured film lets its stars trade on their likability and is all the stronger for it.

Grade: B+