Friday, September 5, 2014

Frank (2014) ****/*****

Most movies that get made about a rock band follow the same typical formula: the band gets together, they hit it big, and then that success breeds personal demons that tear them apart right at the moment when they achieve what was supposed to be their dream. Frank, which comes to us from director Lenny Abrahamson and a script by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare at Goats), subverts that formula. Instead, it looks at a young band whose members are already consumed and defined by their personal demons, even before they achieve any sort of notoriety, which makes for a story that’s far more madcap, and ultimately bittersweet, than any of those rise-and-fall rock-and-roll stories of substance abuse and excess. Frank starts at the point where most of these movies end, so it ends up being able to take us someplace we’ve never before been.

The eccentric band who serve as the protagonists, an experimental number called Soronprfbs, are made up of new keyboardist Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who is the most mundane of the group, and who serves as the eyes through which we discover their world, a consistently exasperated and painfully French guitarist named Baraque (François Civil), a silent but soulful drummer named Nana (Carla Azar), an intense taskmistress who plays the theremin named Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Don (Scoot McNairy), who is the mannequin-molesting lieutenant to the band’s lead singer, and said lead singer, Frank (Michael Fassbender), who obsessively wears a giant, creepy, expressionless fake head every moment of every day, and refuses to take it off. That’s an eccentric cast of characters brought to life by a charismatic cast of performers, and the ways in which they alternately bump up against each other and come together over the course of the film are a large part of what makes Frank such an entertaining movie. It’s filled with chaos and humor, and it even manages to be touching a time or two.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Short Round: The Trip to Italy (2014) ***/*****

Back in 2011, writer/director Michael Winterbottom and stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon saw success from editing down their BBC miniseries The Trip, and releasing it internationally as a feature film. The movie basically consisted of Coogan and Brydon playing exaggerated versions of themselves while traveling around the North of England and eating at fancy restaurants, under the pretense that they were taking the trip in order to write it up for a magazine. Their relationship had a competitive streak, especially surrounding who did better celebrity impressions, and Coogan’s character was dealing with some pretty serious insecurity issues regarding his stagnating career and advancing age. That was about it. The movie was pleasant enough—it included a couple moments of comedic brilliance and a couple somber moments that hinted at deeper depths—but mostly it was just a watchable diversion. The Trip to Italy is them doing the same thing, but in Italy.

Seeing as Coogan and Brydon are just naturally funny together, and are both fairly strong actors to boot, The Trip to Italy manages to hover around that “watchable diversion” area that the first film fell into. It makes a couple of well-meaning decisions that keep it from being quite as strong as the original though. For starters, this time around Coogan is the character who has gotten to a more content place in his life, and Brydon is the one who’s less than thrilled with his situation and is acting out. While it’s nice that Winterbottom decided to change the dynamic up, his efforts don’t quite pan out, because Brydon is at his best when he’s playing the oblivious simpleton, and Coogan is the one whose persona naturally lends itself to angst and hidden darkness. The duo’s relationship isn’t nearly as contentious this time around either, which makes sense, because ignoring the bonding they did in the first movie in order to create drama would have felt cheap, but it robs this movie of a lot of the fun tension that the first one had nonetheless. Somehow it just doesn’t feel right to see Coogan smiling and laughing at Brydon’s motor-mouthed antics rather than being embarrassed by them.

More than anything though, The Trip to Italy is a step worse than its predecessor because it lacks that one comedy bit that’s just so impossibly hilarious that it sticks with you for months, which is what the dueling Michael Caine impressions provided the first film. They go back to the Caine well again here, and even update the bit a little in order to also make fun of the other ridiculous voices that were featured in The Dark Knight Rises, but like most comedy bits, it’s just not as funny when you hear it for a second time. There are a couple new jags the guys get on that are worth your time, and if you liked the first movie it’s likely that you’re going to enjoy this one as well, just probably not as much as the first. Which, I guess, still puts it a step above most other comedy sequels, which generally turn out being frustratingly awful. Hurray for mediocre!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Short Round: What If (2013) ***/*****

Even the good movies about young romance—the indie ones that don’t include A-list actors and that feature quirky hipster characters instead of soulless yuppies—generally manage to be at least a little bit annoying. They can be funny, and they can feature good acting, but they’re still usually a little too precious for their own good, and they’re still usually a little too pleased with how clever and above the rest of the rabble they are to really resonate. What If is that movie exactly. It’s clever enough to get some laughs out of you, and it stars Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, who are strong enough actors to get you invested in the romantic destinies of their characters, but it’s still just your typical indie-leaning romantic comedy. It’s so precious that it will make you roll your eyes just as often as it makes you laugh, its main characters trade quips and banter so incessantly that it comes off as being slightly smug, and it still employs enough rom-com clichés that it can’t really be considered any real alternative to its mainstream counterparts. 

“Let’s go swimming.” 

“But we don’t have any bathing suits…”

The story is a step more interesting than the usual boy and girl get together, boy and girl hit a snag and break up, and then boy and girl have a reunion at the airport tale, which helps. Radcliffe plays a lad named Wallace who has recently had his heart broken, Kazan plays a girl named Chantry who he meets at a party, and Rafe Spall plays Chantry’s boyfriend Ben, whose existence puts a crimp in any plans for this movie to be a romance. Given their clear connection, is it possible for Wallace and Chantry to be platonic friends without his single status and her taken status making things weird? Clearly not, and you can probably see where this whole situation is heading, but director Michael Dowse (who also made the amazing Goon) and credited writers T.J. Dawe, Michael Rinaldi, and Elan Mastai at least give the situation a thorough and nuanced exploration. Nobody is really a villain and nobody is really a victim, valued friendship between the sexes is never treated as an impossibility due to sexual complications and it’s also never treated as the way things should be if we could just rise above trivial desires. The situation is muddy, the decisions the characters make are complicated, and there’s only once or twice where somebody acts dumb and out of character just so some drama can be injected into the story. 

That those things do happen a couple of times is a problem, but because Radcliffe and Kazan are good, and because they’re supported by actors as charming as Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis, and because the movie has the good sense to build up to a big climactic moment in the central relationship and then get out quick, it never completely derails itself. Overall, this is a decent pick for the next time you’re looking to indulge in a new cinematic romance, which, if you’re either a teenage girl or as generally weepy as me, is probably pretty often.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Short Round: Let’s Be Cops (2014) **/*****

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. are hilarious guys and great comedic actors—and anyone who’s seen the work they’ve done together during the latest season of New Girl can tell you that they have the chemistry necessary to make for a solid onscreen duo. So it makes sense why someone would want to make a big screen comedy and put them in the starring roles. What doesn’t make sense, however, is why Johnson and Wayans, who are both at points in their careers where they’re getting the opportunity to make lots of great stuff, would agree to attach themselves to a script that’s as lame as the one that became Let’s Be Cops

The premise of the film—that two underachieving man-children who dress up as cops for a costume party discover that people give them the respect they’ve been unable to achieve in real life while in uniform then decide to exploit the deference shown to police officers by continuing to dress up in the outfits and act like big shots—is fertile enough ground for comedy in theory, but in execution this script proves to be little more than a mixed bag of lame gags and overly serious dramatic subplots that add up to a tonally confused mess. Johnson and Wayans are good enough at delivery that they’re able to get a handful of laughs out of the material, but that’s almost a miracle when said material mostly consist of well-worn racist outrage-baiting, rapey scenarios involving lecherous men, fear of homosexuality, and silly prat falls. A handful of laughs aren’t nearly enough to keep this one from going straight into the toilet.

Especially because the humor is so broad, and the protagonists are so silly, but then a serious story involving gangsters, police corruption, and life or death situations keeps butting in and getting in the way of the jokes. Unless you’re an elite talent, like say the Coen brothers or something, you can’t have it both ways. You can either have a police movie where the protagonists are real people and the audience is supposed to take the action seriously, or you can have a cop comedy where the protagonists are cartoon characters and the plot stuff doesn’t much matter. Co-writer/director Luke Greenfield is apparently not a Coen brother, because Let’s Be Cops plain doesn’t work. This is a movie that asks you to believe that an impeccably quaffed Nina Dobrev waits tables at a greasy spoon for a living, creates horror movie makeup in her spare time, and also doesn’t have a boyfriend. You can’t introduce a premise that ridiculous and then ask us to treat your shootout scenes as if they exist in any sort of reality or that anyone important could be put in any actual danger by them. What we have here is a decent premise for a movie that unfortunately got taken out of the oven when it was still only half-baked.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Calvary (2014) ***/*****

The opening scene of writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s (The Guard) new film, Calvary, is a doozy—the filmic equivalent of that attention-grabbing sentence your teachers would always tell you that your essays had to start with in school. Father James (Brendan Gleeson), the priest of a rural Irish church, takes Sunday confession. What must be a familiar routine at this point in his life suddenly becomes anything but when the confessor on the other side of the booth begins by telling a tale of a childhood shattered by sexual abuse at the hands of another priest, and then goes on to explain that, in order to make a statement, he’s going to kill Father James, a good priest, and he’s going to do it exactly one week from when their conversation ends, which gives our protagonist ample time to get his affairs in order. The man’s threat is measured, confident, and both the viewer and Father James have no doubt that it’s for real. That means the film we’re watching is a detailing of the events of what is very likely going to be the last week of the lead’s life.

Calvary is a unique blending of a couple different movie genres that’s largely made up of equal parts character study and murder mystery. Over the course of the week we meet the various characters who populate Father James’ hometown, each of which who are suspicious in their own unique way, which means that each of which could possibly be the shadowy would-be murderer, despite the fact that they all have problems James needs to listen to and help with nonetheless. James doesn’t spend his week actively trying to solve the mystery of who’s trying to kill him—that’s work that’s left to the audience. Instead, he mostly just goes about performing his usual routine, doing his best to serve the people of his parish, and as we watch him do so we slowly begin to learn more and more about who he is as a man. Which, when you’re dealing with a character this layered, who’s being played by an actor as wildly talented as Gleeson, ends up being a lot more fun than it might sound at first.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Short Round: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) **/*****

Just the title Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is probably enough to turn mainstream audiences off of this crazy property. It’s ridiculous—the kind of stuff that only kids could ever like. The fact is though, ever since the original TMNT comic books were turned into a toy line and a cartoon series in the late 80s, the turtles have become a worldwide phenomenon on the back of its little kid fans alone. It’s likely Platinum Dunes had higher aspirations when it came to relaunching them as this live action, big budget, possible franchise-invigorator though. Now there’s a possibility that the Turtles can be followed by new kid fans as well as nostalgia-seeking former fans, which could possibly make it the sort of genre-crossing, money-earning hit that the Marvel movies or the Transformers movies have become. The idea is a sound one, except for the fact that any movie about turtles who mutate into pizza-loving, Renaissance artist-named, ninja teenagers is going to have to primarily concern itself with being a mindless good time in order for broad audiences to really embrace it, and a mindless good time isn’t what this new TMNT movie is at all. As a matter of fact, it’s mostly an exposition-filled bore.

It doesn’t do everything wrong. The special effects that bring the Turtles themselves to life are generally impressive, and may even be an improvement over the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop efforts that brought the Turtles of the 1990 film to life (when we’re watching character-building scenes where they’re just sitting around), and the script seems to have a strong handle on who the turtles are as people—some stream lining and rewriting has been done in respect to their origins, but each Turtle is still easily recognizable as the distinct personality we’ve known them as, and the group dynamic is still largely in tact, so it’s hard to complain about anything that’s happened to the characters. But, on the other hand, this movie sticks so closely to what we’ve gotten in the past, character-wise, that it feels like a huge mistake for it to spend so much time explaining itself. Hollywood has made bad Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies before—really bad ones—but this is the first time they’ve made one that’s completely boring.

This Turtles movie comes after an entire trilogy of live action Turtles movies, countless animated series, countless comic books, countless video game spin-offs, and even an ill-advised holiday special, and yet we’re still asked to wait for a good half hour until we see the characters, as if we’re watching Jaws for the first time or something. This is a movie that has a rock-simple plot—mutants are created, mutants escape, their creators need to get them back—but it spends so much time explaining itself with flashbacks and expositional dialogue that you get a good hour in before the plot moves forward at all. Ninety percent of TMNT is its writers explaining away what Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are, like we’re not already aware, and like any excuse could ever be made for how ridiculous a concept it is in the first place, and the other ten percent is inert action sequences where the CG nature of all the effects rob everything of any reality, weight, or urgency, so that none of what you’re watching ends up mattering in the first place. This movie is everything that’s wrong with modern blockbusters, rolled into one big failure. It’s a remake of something we’ve had enough of, it’s derivative of everything else that’s come out in the last five years, it’s concerned more with empty spectacle than character-building, and it insults the audience’s intelligence at every turn. This was the Turtles’ big opportunity to move past its child-aimed roots and become a mainstream property, but if you happen to be past the age of a small child and you find yourself satisfied by this film, then you need to take a long, hard look at what exactly it is you do or do not demand from your entertainment. If you like this one, chances are you might be a Philistine.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) ****/*****

Up until Marvel came around and changed the game, the approach to making a modern superhero movie seemed to be to strip the material of all the pulp, humor, and color that appeared on the original comic book page, strip down the mythology to only its most grounded, realistic elements, and then to fuse the few fantastical concepts left over to a reality that looked as thoroughly like our own as possible. The theory seemed to be that the bright colors and broad adventure of comic books lost their appeal and became inherently cheesy after getting translated to live action. A quip was made in the first big superhero success story, the original X-Men film, about how ridiculous it would be if they wore bright colored superhero costumes rather than dark, leather, battle suits. Christopher Nolan’s grounding of the Batman character in a world that looked more like the gritty crime dramas of the 70s than any comic book ever printed made more money than basically any other series ever. The strategy was a winner. 

During the period between the releases of the original Iron Man and The Avengers, Marvel once again changed the game though. They proved that bright colors could work on the big screen, as long as they weren’t exaggerated to the point of being disorienting, that humor could fit perfectly into superhero properties, as long as the scripts you write are actually funny, and that big, broad adventure was something that never really went out of style in the first place, so any urge to suppress it was a silly one. Marvel figured out how to make the biggest, best, and most beloved superhero movies of all time, and they did so by sticking closer to the stories’ comic book origins than any movie had before. Which brings us to Guardians of the Galaxy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Boyhood (2014) ****/*****

Richard Linklater has done a lot of interesting stuff over the course of his career as a director, but probably the best of what he’s produced so far comes in the form of his Before trilogy—three movies starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy that take place over the course of 18 years. The Before movies are exceptional for two reasons. First of all, they’re famously about little more than people walking together and talking, yet they’re somehow able to not only keep that formula from getting boring, they’re also able to make it downright engaging for the length of three feature-length films. Secondly, because they were able to get the filmmaker and the stars back together for two sequels that each took place nine years apart, they were also able to look at a relationship from a unique perspective as it developed and as the couple naturally aged. We got to see Hawke and Delpy’s faces change and their perspectives change, without the use of phony aging makeup and showy acting meant to project aging, and with the added benefit of the creative forces actually growing in wisdom and skill in between each movie.

Linklater’s new film, Boyhood, is essentially the Before concept on steroids. Everything that was accomplished there is taken a step further and made a step more interesting because of increased ambition. This time around, instead of detailing a relationship as it grows and changes over the course of 18 years, checking in on it a mere three times, Linklater is detailing the entire childhood of a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane), from age 5 to age 18, and he’s checking in on his development constantly. To be clear about that, this movie was shot over the course of 12 years, with the actors and the crew getting together every year to shoot a handful of new scenes—which means that you gradually watch all of the actors age 12 years, for real, over the course of the film, including watching the star morph from being a bright-eyed 5-year-old in the opening scene to being a scruffy-faced college freshman in the last. It’s a gimmick that would be worth checking out even if the movie wasn’t really any good, but that’s especially worth checking out because the film is so good that it just may be the new best thing Linklater has ever made.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) ****/*****

When it was announced that a Planet of the Apes reboot called Rise of the Planet of the Apes was going to be released in 2011, movie fans all over the world were instantly up in arms. The reason the project was so unwelcome was equal parts how beloved the original film from 1968 was and how reviled the first attempt to reboot the franchise in 2001 was. Did we really need another reboot when people still happily watched the original film and the first attempt at a new franchise had become all but forgotten over time? It didn’t seem like it, but a funny thing happened when Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes turned out to be a lot better than anyone anticipated—suddenly there was desire for a sequel. After it was announced that Wyatt wouldn’t be returning for the next film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we were all right back where we started though—dreading another Planet of the Apes movie. Well, now a funny thing has happened again. Matt Reeves (Let Me In) took over the Dawn directing duties from Wyatt, and he’s made a Planet of the Apes movie that’s even better than Rise was. What a world we live in.

The film opens with an artful montage sequence that fills us in on all of the things that have taken place in the years between the events of Rise and where we are now. The basic gist of it is that most of the human population has been killed off by the nasty virus that was created in the first film, governments have collapsed, and the only survivors are people who were genetically immune to the disease and who now live in isolated communities. On the other end of the spectrum, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his ape friends have been thriving in the redwood forests north of San Francisco. Their numbers have swelled, they’ve gotten more educated, more organized, and they even live in a giant treehouse village that’s pretty much the coolest thing this side of the Swiss Family Robinson. Conflict bubbles up when the last surviving members of the San Francisco population attempt to restore power to what’s left of their city by reactivating a dam that exists adjacent to the ape community. Both parties come face to face, tempers flare, and the question of whether the two species can coexist or if war between them is inevitable get raised.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Short Round: Begin Again (2014) **/*****

Begin Again, the latest music-heavy drama from Once writer/director John Carney, tells a story that springs out of two other tales that happen concurrently; the dissolution of a young songwriter’s (Keira Knightley) relationship with her boyfriend and writing partner (Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) after he achieves rock star status, and the dissolution of a formerly successful music producer’s (Mark Ruffalo) life and career after a couple of tough breaks lead him into a pattern of alcoholism and self-destructive acting out. One chance encounter between a down-on-her-luck musician and an at-the-end-of-his-rope producer later, and you can pretty much tell what’s going to happen. They decide to make music together, and the process of doing so not only gets them both back on their feet, it teaches them important lessons about life and relationships. Every move this movie makes is telegraphed a mile away, but, if there was going to be a reason to see Begin Again, it wasn’t going to be for the groundbreaking storytelling anyway.

Chances are, if somebody was going to see Begin Again, it was either for the promise of a soundtrack full of great music, or to take in the performances of its two leads. Ruffalo’s scruffy charisma and Knightley’s sweet smile are two very powerful tricks for a movie to have up its sleeve, after all. Unfortunately, while they’re both present here, they’re just not enough to keep Begin Again from being a total bore. The portions of the film that focus on the failed romance of two young, white, attractive, rich people are just too rom-com retread to be remotely interesting. The portions that focus on the down and out record producer could have been something, except they don’t get enough time to fully develop, and the drama of the situation is neutered when Ruffalo’s character is given an out for his behavior and ultimately doesn’t have to own up to his alcoholism. That leaves the portions of the film where Ruffalo and Knightley’s characters get together and make music, and they’re no deeper than a montage sequence from an 80s movie where a bunch of people get together and clean up an old house while a song plays. Begin Again is pure Hollywood formula that has been mined no deeper than usual and that has had no unique spin put on it whatsoever. Tedious.

Which leaves us with the music. There is a lot of good music in this thing, I guess, if you’re into the sort of pop-friendly, singer-songwriter stuff that the people behind the soundtrack have come up with. Is it all so good that an entire feature film needed to be built around it? Probably not—and that’s exactly what this film plays as while you’re watching it—a half-baked promotional vehicle meant to promote a soundtrack. If you’re the type of person who likes Maroon 5 and who wants to hear what Levine did for this movie, then, by all means, give the soundtrack a listen. Fans of Knightley especially might want to try it out to see what a pleasant surprise she can be when put behind a microphone. There’s really no reason for anyone to bother sitting through the movie itself though. Life is too short, and there will be other Mark Ruffalo vehicles.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Snowpiercer (2014) ****/*****

Seeing as Bong Joon-ho’s Korean-language film Mother, which was released in the US back in 2010, was one of the darkest, most complex, and most uncompromising thrillers that I’ve seen in a number of years, I went into his new film, Snowpiercer, feeling pretty optimistic—even though it’s a post-apocalypse movie built on the ridiculous premise that the world is a frozen wasteland and the last surviving members of the human race are all living on a super-long, self-sustaining train that continuously circles the globe. Is it possible for anyone, even a talent on the level of Bong’s, to take a premise this inherently head-scratching in its weirdness and still make a movie that’s engaging and relatable to audiences? Apparently it is, and the secret to the formula seems to be to cast Captain America as your lead. 

To get back to the plot though—this is a movie that shouldn’t work. If you give it a moment’s thought, there’s no reason for what happens in this movie to be set on a moving train, there’s no reason for the poor people who act as our heroes to exist on the train in the way that they do, and, in general, there’s no reason that an audience should buy any of the broadly drawn, cartoony characters who we’re introduced to over the course of the story. But Snowpiercer introduces us to those characters, it gives us ridiculous explanations for the particulars of its world, and not only do we buy everything we’re given, we lap it up greedily and we ask for more.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy Christmas (2014) ****/*****

Sometimes the movies that Joe Swanberg makes get flack, because they’re small in scope, made using loose outlines and actor improvisation rather than full scripts, and he’s generally able to churn a ton of them out in a small amount of time. Some pundits even go as far as to say that they’re not real movies, just video projects or something, like someone might do in art school. That kind of closed-minded thinking discounts the authenticity and the moments of serendipitous magic that can come from getting the right chemical mix of talented improvisors in a room and letting them just live in the moment though. Movies like this, they can tap into truths that reflect our real lives so much more accurately than scripted drama can, and as Swanberg’s career has progressed and he’s gotten the opportunity to work with more and more experienced actors, his stuff has just gotten better and better. His 2013 movie Drinking Buddies was not only the most commercial thing he’s done, it was probably also the best thing he’s done, and this new project, Happy Christmas, tops even that.  

The story here is simple and the focus in on character, as always. Jenny (Anna Kendrick) is in her late twenties, but is still as directionless as people usually are when they’re in their early twenties. We don’t really know why that is, but we get a good indication that something has recently gone wrong in her life, and we know that she’s just ended a relationship (a move everyone questions) and has decided to move to Chicago in order to live with her brother (Swanberg) and to help him and his wife (Melanie Lynskey) take care of their baby. The problem with that plan is, after a night out with her best friend (Lena Dunham) that ends up in a drunken blackout, and after an awkward romantic encounter with the couple’s babysitter (Mark Webber) that triggers a personal crisis, it becomes unclear whether or not Jenny can really be trusted to take care of much of anything. Of course, while all of this nuts and bolts plot stuff plays out, relationships get formed, interactions both tense and joyful are had, and personal growth is achieved—and thus we have a movie.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Short Round: They Came Together (2014) ***/*****

Once upon a time, spoof movies were a legitimate form of entertainment that even audiences who weren’t botched lobotomy victims could enjoy. They’d take a handful of recent trends in movies, exaggerate them to the point of ridiculousness—successfully lampooning whatever trope was their target—and usually they’d be packed full of a bunch of other random gags to boot. Fun. Then all of those Scary Movie-wannabe spoofs that Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer made came along, and a precedent was set that all a movie needed to do in order to be a spoof was recreate scenes from popular movies beat for beat, with no punchlines, and a bunch of humorless zombies would keep buying tickets to them anyway. The spoof movie felt dead.

The good news for us is that director David Wain (Role Models, Wanderlust) and his Wet Hot American Summer co-writer Michael Showalter have reunited to bring the art form back to life. Their new movie, They Came Together, stars Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler as a couple who are relaying the story of how they met cute and got together while out to dinner with friends (Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper). You see, They Came Together is a spoof of romantic comedies, a proper one, that not only satirizes all of the tired clichés, recycled character types, and re-heated plot elements of one of the most consistently lazy and consistently watched film genres out there, but that also packs itself full of a bunch of other random gags for good measure.

Like Wet Hot American Summer, the humor of They Came Together is pretty Meta, it’s pretty absurdist, and it’s pretty dang funny. With a supporting cast this deep (Christopher Meloni, Max Greenfield, Cobie Smulders, Michael Ian Black, Ed Hems, etc…), it pretty much had to be. The thing that keeps the film from getting over that quality hump that would make it an easy recommendation, however, is that it’s really just a series of gags that make fun of romantic comedies, and not so much a solid story that stands on its own. The best spoof movies don’t just satirize a genre, they hold up as a solid entry in that genre as well, and this one is nowhere near doing that. Wet Hot American Summer was able to get away with not telling a real story because it was so insane and so packed full of boundary-pushing humor, but, comparatively, They Came Together is a much tamer experience that seems to be much more concerned with not alienating the norms, and it suffers for the restraint. It’s a funny movie, for sure, it’s just not the kind of thing that anyone is going to need to watch more than once.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Obvious Child (2014) ***/*****

Jenny Slate very infamously uttered the F word during her very first sketch on her very first season as a cast member of Saturday Night Live, and didn’t end up lasting too long on the show afterwards. So that didn’t end up being the big break she was probably hoping it would be. Chances are good her starring role in this indie dramedy from writer/director Gillian Robespierre will end up being the thing that gets her to the next level though, because Obvious Child sees her shouldering the weight of a true leading role where she appears in almost every scene of a movie and is asked to serve as the heart and soul that all of its other elements revolve around, and she does a good enough job with the task that she’s likely to turn some heads in industry casting departments.

The main reason people seem to be talking about Obvious Child is its subject matter. It’s something of a romantic comedy, and it pretty closely resembles one of those indie movies where a directionless 20-something stumbles through their life trying to find meaning, but it comes loaded with the hook that the majority of its conflict comes from an abortion. Slate’s character, a somewhat air-headed standup comedian named Donna, meets a strange guy (Jake Lacy) in a bar, sleeps with him while in a drunken stupor, and then has to decide whether or not she’s ready to be a mother once she realizes that they forgot to actually use the condom they had with them, resulting in a pregnancy. Turns out she’s not ready to be a mother, at all, so she decides to go through with the abortion. Obvious Child is mostly the story of her following through with this decision. It’s an unflinching and unapologetic depiction of what it’s like to be one of the many young women who get put in this situation every day. It’s a bit sad, it’s often darkly funny, and because it’s so honest and nonjudgmental in its portrayal of the Donna character, it’s gotten a lot of people’s attention.