Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Ghost Protocol

The Five Guys of the “Mission Impossible” movies.

With each film having a different director, the “Mission Impossible” series plays out like a burger chain constantly shifting management. Each one is attempting to deliver more or less the same thing, but each one tweaks the ingredients and the recipe ever so slightly. Like  the other films,”Ghost Protocol” is just a cheeseburger, but with Brad Bird manning the grill, you’re definitely getting one of those high-end fast food burgers, “with strength.”

The trick seems to lie in knowing just what people want from a “cheeseburger,” or to get away from this lame metaphor, an action-centered spy thriller. We want a cast of attractive stars to root for that are also capable of seeming to possess extreme competence when it comes to clandestine activities. We want an efficient plot which fluidly delivers exposition while giving us enough stakes to imbue the film with intirugue without getting bogged down in too much characterization or needless backstory. Most importantly, we want several well-executed, gadget-filled action scenes at a number of exotic locales. “Ghost Protocol” ticks all those boxes.

Leading the way is Tom Cruise, who frankly looks a bit bored and tired in his fourth appearance as IMF secret agent Ethan Hunt, with his face permanently stuck in an “I’m gettin’ too old for this shit” position. Cruise’s ambivalence is incorporated into the film nicely, though, particularly with the help of a running gag about the repeatedly failings of their top-of-the-technology and things not going as planned. Rounding out the team of IMF good guys are Simon Pegg as the resident computer geek and comic relief, Paula Patton as the lone woman on the team, and Jeremy Renner as a sort of Ethan Hunt-in-training, on the reay should Cruise ever feel the need to leave the franchise.

The narrative is an old Cold War standby. A nefarious figure code-named “Cobalt” is trying to instigate nuclear war. This involves framing the U.S. for a terrorist attack on the Kremlin and launching stolen nuclear missiles. The sticky political situations initiates “Ghost Protocol,” which just means Ethan Hunt’s team is left on their own to save the world, instead of getting the usual bang-up assistance they get from IMF headquarters. There are stolen launch codes which need to be found, assassins which need to be dealt with, and databases that need hacked into. All standard sorts of things.

The real star of this film is the fantastically directed and almost non-stop action. The film starts with a chaotic prison riot orchestrated by Hunt’s IMF team to break him out of a Moscow prison. Following that is a sequence in which the team breaks into the Kremlin, a breathtaking heist and switcheroo in and on top the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the infiltration of a server room at a fancy party in Mumbai, and a surprisingly exciting showdown in parking garage. Bird injects all these sequences with a compelling mixture of humor and tension, resulting in a string of grin-inducing spy antics.

Nothing about “Ghost Protocol” is transformative or groundbreaking, but it is satisfying nonetheless. Brad Bird knows how to entertain. With virtually no screen time wasted, it is a clinic in efficient storytelling with no ambiguity about what it hopes to accomplish. It is just a straight-forward, no frills spy thriller with quality ingredients and cooked to perfection.  If that sort of thing is the kind of  thing you are looking for, than this is the thing for you.

4/5

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Nebraska

Nebraska_Poster

A Dorothea Lange photograph brought to boozy, bittersweet, and hilarious life.

Authenticity is a word often thrown out without much context. The implication that a certain character feels like a plot contrivance or the weird creation of a screenwriter, and that therefore suspension of disbelief takes a hit and the rest of film is harder to go along with, is a perfectly valid criticism. However, what is sorely lacking from those kinds of statements is a reference to that person’s own life experiences. This is important, not because it invalidates someone’s opinion or makes it dispositive, but because life experiences are not universal, despite the myriad of emotions and little moments which are. Characters may or may not reflect our life experiences, but whether they do impacts our response to them.

That is really just a convoluted setup so that I can say the characters in “Nebraska” reeked of authenticity to me, and I would know because I’m from the midwest. With the possible exception of Bob Odenkirk, whose comedic greatness might be a bit too big for this film, everyone in this film felt like people I have met or might have met while spending time at my Grandma’s house in central Iowa. In a non-derogatory way, these are average, unexceptional people living quiet lives and dying quiet deaths in mostly forgotten small towns. Creating characters which don’t feel like characters, but real, actual people is one of the hardest thing to do in film, but “Nebraska” has them in spades.

If film acting begins and ends with the human face, Bruce Dern has taken that art to near perfection. As the craigy, stoic Woody Grant, he speaks very little but says much with the lines of his face and the tiredness of his eyes. Living a quiet retirement in Billings, Montana, we first meet Woody wandering wide-eyed onto a highway, in a stubborn attempt to get to Lincoln, Nebraska on foot. Woody is keen to get there because he received one of those scams in the mail. You know, a generic piece of paper which claims that you won a million dollars, but you have to subscribe to several magazines first in order to claim your prize money. Woody insists that he needs to go to Lincoln to collect his winnings, despite not being able to drive and the whole idea is a waste of time.

Woody is intent on going to Lincoln, even though he is told repeatedly by his chatty, nagging wife Kate that he is an idiot and the prize money isn’t real. Played masterfully by a squawky June Squibb, Kate is one of those old women whose mouth never really stops, and like such women, she oscillates between hilarious inappropriateness, spot-on articulations of other people’s bullshit, and spouting irritating, incessant redundancies. Yet her love for her husband is genuine, despite her constant complaints about his drinking and her endless stream of insults.

Caving in to Woody’s stubborn persistence is his bland but loving adult son David, played with an unassuming sweetness by Will Forte. David is as incredulous with his father as everyone else is, but he nevertheless agrees to drive him to Lincoln. They plan on stopping for a couple of days in Woody’s old hometown in Hawthorne, Nebraska where they will be joined by Kate and David’s brother Ross (Odenkirk,) where they will stay with their relatives for a long overdue family reunion. To call the town sleepy is to undersell the exciting prospects of unconsciousness. Woody’s arrival in town is itself big news, but when they find out he has “won” a million dollars, it is the only thing the town can talk about.

Naturally, this visit with extended families stirs up bits of the past, bringing up faded memories and old conflicts to the surface. but if that sounds dreary, it isn’t. One of Alexander Payne’s greatest strengths as a director is melding meaningful humor with overt sentimentality. For David and Ross, this is one of the few moments they get to see their father as more than a curt, emotionally unavailable drunk. This plays out not with pure sappiness, but through the brother’s often flabbergasted reactions to the lurid details of their parents past, as they realize how little they actually know about their parents.

There are moments that would likely be kitschy in other films but are endearing in “Nebraska.” For instance, there is a scene in which Woody visits his childhood home which is now deserted and destitute. This could serve as a clumsy visual metaphor for the fleeting significance of life and the memories associate with it, but because Payne, and the brilliant acting of Dern have imbued this film and this character with such emotion and reality that it works.

I have yet to talk about the digital black and white cinematography of this film, largely because it was so easy to forget that it was shot in black and white. The cinematography just felt so natural for these characters and this story. As Roger Ebert and many others have observed, black and white gives images a timeless quality that is simply lacking from color photography. This eternal quality is fitting for a film about the fading of a generation and the waning years of a couple of human lives.

When I was young, I would sometimes go to a restaurant with my uncle called the “Gifford Cafe,” in a small little municipality called Gifford. It was a basic restaurant that served up the usual grill fair. They would pretend their burgers were made of exotic meats, such as rhinoceroses or alligators, which made the greasy treats all the more fun to eat. The patrons were predominantly white middle-class farmers, pleasantly chatting about nothing in particular. Far away from anything resembling a major metropolitan area, they have raised their families and lived their lives in relative obscurity. In obscurity they likely remain, but “Nebraska” reflects a portion of their lives.

4.5/5

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The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street

A comical essay on the joys of being Jordan Belfort.

There are those describing “The Wolf of Wall Street” as a white-collar version of “Goodfellas.” They aren’t wrong. Structurally, they both center around a fourth-wall breaking protagonist that cheerfully tells us about his, what might generously be described as, “alternative” lifestyle. While these lifestyles ultimately prove unsustainable, for a while both gangster Henry Hill and Wall Street sleazebag Jordan Belfort make a pretty good run of it. Yet for all these similarities (including their fantastic cinematography and all-around greatness) the nuance lies in the protagonists themselves: Henry Hill loved his career in organized crime, but in telling us about it he didn’t give a damn whether we approved of it, or him. Jordan Belfort, though, cares a lot. Belfort is the consummate salesman, and this film is one massive sales meeting. The pitch? Being Jordan Belfort is the greatest thing ever, and we are all suckers because we are not.

It is a weird sort of sales pitch, granted, because Jordan Belfort dares us throughout the film to dislike him. Just about every stereotype about white males on Wall Street applies to Jordan. He is misogynistic, elitist, materialistic, narcissistic, insensitive, and vile in any number of ways. More than once he directly insults our intelligence, mocks us for having less access to drug or our own helicopter, while flaunting his ability to get away with doing whatever he wants. Save for one moment, Belfort never seems to regret anything he does. While the appropriate response to Belfort is probably indignation and disgust, he knows us better that that. For all our self-righteousness, there is a part of us which is jealous that, for a little while at least, Belfort got to be the embodiment of the capitalist dream, and we can’t help but wonder what it would be like to indulge every stupid impulse we’ve ever had.

Belfort is played with a brilliant snide charm by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose own status as a super-rich star certainly helps his ability to pull of endearing smugness and the dark humor needed to constantly tell us how much better he is than we are.  He also has the chops to start small and relatively innocent, with a young Belfort in the early 1990s learning the ropes from Matthew McConaughey as a grunt at a prestigious Wall Street investment firm. When that firm goes belly-up, Belfort moves to a small firm currently working the penny stock market. Deemed so small and insignificant, the S.E.C. left this market virtually unregulated. With lots of a worthless stock and a cadre of potential investors ignorant as to the difference, Belfort quickly builds up his own investment empire.

It isn’t Belfort’s brains or lack of scruples that make him so formidable, it is his prodigious sales skills. He is able to turn giving money to a whackjob inventing stuff in his grandmother’s garage into investing in an exciting startup led by an innovator with great ideas and a lot of potential. People quite literally give him money for nothing more than the privilege of giving him their money. Of course, it isn’t really stocks that Belfort is selling, it is Jordan Belfort. His first disciples are a small group of friends who know nothing about selling stock, but follow his instructions on their way to millions. (A formula that goes something like Belfort’s sales script + repetition=millions of dollars.) Before long the camera is panning to a bullpen of hundreds of investors taking money from the masses, all acolytes into the church of Belfort. One way or another, everyone in this film is obsessed with Jordan Belfort.

Jonah Hill comes in with a big supporting role as Donnie Azoff, Belfort’s best friend and right hand man. Played with a weird Long Island accent and an impressive set of fake teeth, Azoff is in truth more drug dealer and lead partier than investment expert. (Though the scene in which Azoff and Belfort get in a quaalude-riddled fight achieves a special kind of absurd excellence.) With business booming, Jordan Belfort makes little distinction between work and pleasure, with an impressive array of hookers and “team-building” exercises. It is like a frat party but with more money and better drugs.

Alas, all parties must end, but the film is strangely silent on who pays for it all. Certainly as rich as he is, Belfort has no trouble landing on his feet. (What punishment he does receive is exceedingly hollow.) We never see any of the victims of Belfort’s vicious sales tactics. The film doesn’t seem interested in exploring the broader implications of Belfort’s crimes.

What to make of Jordan Belfort, cipher for white collar criminals everywhere? The joke seems to be that whatever we may claim, we need characters like Jordan Belfort. Someone that we can idolize for their ability to game the system and to give us a benchmark to strive for, but also someone to despise for their scumbag ethics and pervess excess. Someone that can manifest both the vice and the virtue of capitalism in one nasty and compelling package. Who better for the job than someone as awesome as Jordan Belfort?

4.5/5

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Serpico

Serpico

A beacon of morality amidst a storm of ethical ambiguity.

I don’t think film cops were ever nastier than in the 1970s. Popeye Doyle and Harry Callahan helped lead the way, but they were just among the first of a slew of morally shaky police officers whose often violent tactics were as dubious as the criminals they were combating. It’s almost as if filmmakers had to shake out all the grime that had been swept under the cinematic rugs for half a century in one decade. In this context, the monolithic virtue of “Serpico” is a compelling aberration and intriguing counterbalance to the uncertain ethics of its contemporaries.

“Serpico” looks like all those other gritty cop dramas of the 70s, while Serpico (Al Pacino, crushing it as he did early in his career) is one of the weirdest and coolest cops ever. He comes from one of those Italian, blue-collar stalwart families in which all the men become cops and all the women become teachers. but for whatever reason he wants nothing to do with his family or their way of life. While he starts as a baby-faced, straight-laced gumshoe, he gets into the counter-culturalism of the 60s. Serpico is a smash-hit at one of those sub-Andy Warhol psychedelic parties with his hippie girlfriend. He lives in Greenwich Village and is into ballet. Other cops don’t quite know what to think of him and he doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. After an innocuous conversation in a bathroom with another cop is misinterpreted by a superior, Serpico is transferred to an undercover unit where he grows an awesome beard and looks like a drug-addled vagabond. 

For all his unorthodoxy, Serpico is really good at his job. In what feels like a police-version of the “Little Red Hen” fable, Serpico violates jurisdictional protocols when he thwarts an on-going gang rape in contradiction to a direct order. It is Serpico’s gentler approach which gets one of the perpetrators of that rape to rat out his accomplices. Serpico uses a nifty maneuver to catch two of them at the same time, when no other cops can be bothered to join him on the bust x. Yet there are plenty of cops who are happy to step in and take the credit for Serpico’s work.

Yet for all his crime-fighting prowess, Serpico spends a lot more time worrying about his fellow cops than he does the criminal underworld. Without a uniform to give them away, just about every undercover cop in New York City takes bribes from drug dealers and bookies. In fact, aside from one upstanding sergeant played by Bob Blair, we never see any cops do anything but collect money and harass minorities. So comfortable with the police is one drug dealer that he hangs out with several cops at their desks after being arrested by Serpico.

Despite numerous opportunities, Serpico never takes any of this dirty money. Brilliantly, director Sidney Lumet is so precise in how he paces the film. Lumet slowly phases out any scenes in which Serpico himself does any police work. He instead spends all of his time being hounded by his nervous colleges and desperately trying to get some higher up official.  What starts out as an aggressively apathetic bureaucracy is slowly revealed to be a gang of thugs shielded by powerful but deliberately negligent officials who have no motivation to snuff out the rampant corruption that Serpico incessantly points out. Serpico’s honesty unsettles his fellow cops and leaves him bitter, alone, and utterly terrified.

Even by today’s standards, Serpico’s views about police work place him on the liberal end of the political spectrum. The film never makes it clear where Serpico’s ethical resolve and atypical (for a police officer at the time) views about police work comes from, but his estranged individuality is no small part of it. Without a family, he has no self-righteous excuse to make more money via off-the-book “hazard” pay. He isn’t beholden to public opinion like many of his political-minded superiors. He doesn’t care the least bit about the macho brotherhood which pervaded police culture at the time. He is just a stubborn weirdo who pissed enough people off for long enough to actually make a difference. Sometimes all it takes is one stubborn weirdo.

4/5

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Zodiac

Zodiac

Drawn out psychosexual frustration at its finest.

Admittedly I was perturbed watching “Zodiac” for the first time several years ago. It felt listless and meandering, overblown and overwrought, but worst of all, the film focused on a series of murders that were never solved. At that time it was difficult for me to conceive of a film about a series of murder that didn’t resolve itself in the final moments via some sort of confrontation with the murderer coupled with a psychoanalytical explanation for their actions, not unlike Fincher’s “Seven.” (Nevermind that the real-life Zodiac Killer was never actually found, so “resolving” this plot would be fairly disingenuous.) Several years and films later, this wholesale expectation that every on-screen murder must be solved has left me, which along with the knowledge that this film isn’t the least bit interested in answers, but in questions, left me free to savor how “Zodiac” revels in myopic futility and impotence.

“Zodiac” is a film obsessed with obsession. It gets lost in a rabbit hole of ideas and theories which tantalize us with the possibilities of answers, but offers up only paranoia and isolation. It does this using one of the most enticing mysteries of the twentieth century: Who was behind the Zodiac killings in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s? The end of the film suggests a possible culprit, but with limited conviction. (The man died before any definitive evidence could be cultivated, so this theory, like the others, can neither be confirmed or denied.) Instead, it ponders about a number of possible suspects and the obsessive characters that tried to compile an extremely fragmented string of evidence which seemed to lead nowhere.

Typical crime films give us one protagonist who assembles all the pieces of the puzzle scene by scene and explains precisely how they all fit together in the end. “Zodiac” plays out as if several people are working on the same puzzle, only in different rooms with different pieces, most of which are missing. The official police leads investigating the murder are Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards,) but amatuer detectives Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal,) a reporter and cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle respectively, also spend a great deal of time trying to crack the case.

Whomever was responsible for the series of grizzly murders left an odd crumb trail to follow. There are cryptic letters to analyze, a strange phone call to a notorious psychiatrist, and loads of circumstantial evidence to parse through. Yet most of it leads to nothing more than a series of blind alleys. Characters drop into and out of the investigation, some because of threatening letters and creepy anonymous calls, others because the trail goes dead. Robert Graysmith lasts longer than anybody, but his unilateral focus on a murder investigation that does not directly affect him costs him his family and his career. At one point, Graysmith even ends up in the basement of a Zodiac suspect who would be generously described as “really, really weird.” Eventually, Graysmith begins to resemble the deranged characters he suspects might be the zodiac killer.

I wouldn’t be the first person to observe how psychosexual the experience of many films can be. The very language of the word “climax” suggests a release of all the dramatic tension that has been building throughout the film. If most narratives replicate the sexual experience, “Zodiac” is the cinematic equivalent of blueballs. Answers linger at the edge of the frame, but they never arrive. The murders, which the film shows us in detail, never make any sense, and we are left with a pervasive sense of dread which the film never dispels.

It is important not to mistake this unmitigated psychological distress with a response to the film as a film. The distress is the point, because “Zodiac” is concerned with our need to know, not in feeding that need. It meanders and exploits our anxiety about unsolved crimes, and about unanswered questions more broadly. We as a species love certainty, but this film gives us none. Of course, that that could just be a load of nonsense and “Zodiac” is simply a really well done crime thriller about one of the strangest string of murders in American history. Either way, the 2007 version of me was an idiot. This is a very well-made film.

4/5

 

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American Hustle

American Hustle

A film full of stars helps the mediocrity go down.

The problem with “American Hustle” is that it appears to be oblivious as to how exceedingly silly it is. It has lots of things one expects from an Oscar contender: a monster cast of stars who offer up bombastic performances, a lively camera that zips through a late 70s world of bad hairstyles and funky outfits, and snappy dialogue that mostly crackles and amuses. What it lacks is a sense of humor about its own sense of self-importance. Without it, the film buckles under the weight of all those lofty performances, the camerawork feels superfluous, and the dialogue regresses into a drippy, preachy mess. The film never threatens to fall apart, not exactly, but its playful veneer crumbles, revealing its more cynical Oscar-bait intentions.

The film opens by asserting a vague connection to events that have actually happened, while acknowledging that this connection is tenuous. In a film about lying, this is probably the only bit of honesty that we get from “American Hustle.” The art of the con, as film topics go, is pretty entertaining. even as it isn’t an original one, but a film doesn’t have to be. Using well-worn tropes to provide a bevy of Oscar nomination, though, and that’s a scam. “American Hustle” exists in a netherworld between a scathing critique of the artifice which exudes out of every human transaction and the simple pleasure of a lighthearted romp about an oddball assembly of slimy characters trying to exploit each other. With its feet in both doors, this is kind of like pouring cough syrup on a bowl of sugary cereal.

Amidst this cacophony of corruption, there isn’t any character that one could “root” for, though I suppose our protagonists here are con artists Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams.) Donning a wickedly awful combover and beer belly, Irving has made a living by offering fraudulent loans to the desperate, with Sydney posing as a British aristocrat with access to lending services across the pond. When the duo gets busted by ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper,) they find themselves coerced into setting up the much-beloved mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner,) and a number of Congressman who are all taking bribe money in an attempt to rebuild Atlantic City. Complicating matters is Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence,) who as a passive-aggressive she-devil is a psychotic wildcard that could blow up the whole operation.

Granting that I’m not a professional actor, these motley characters seem like they would be a lot of fun to play. Yet aside from Jennifer Lawrence’s all-out caricatured portrayal of a jealous wife and a smaller role from Louis C.K. laying down some levity as Richie DiMaso’s much more cautious boss, nobody appears to be having any fun at all. Instead each actor punctuates each line with the grandiose significance of someone with Oscar’s in their eyes. This is more a product of the material, which is frustratingly safe, than it is any choice by the actors. The script needed to be either a lot smarter or a lot dumber.

A smarter film might have bit harder with its criticism, taking its characters to darker places and spending a lot less time telling us what it is about. A dumber one might have been more comfortable with simply telling a weird and goofy story with characters that are more overtly likable. Instead the film languishes in a middle-brow Hell, telegraphing its every move and delivering middling results. It isn’t without its charms, particularly from the wardrobe and soundtrack department, but with a cast this loaded with talent and a director with a reputation for mischief, it should have amounted to something more than a moderately entertaining bit of puffery.

3/5

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Road House

Roadhouse

A weird, incomprehensible, idiotic, and wonderful mess of a film.

The “so bad its good” movie is one of the stranger phenomena in film. I’m not sure when exactly ironic love for movies began, but I’m even more perplexed by what that kind of love really means. It is sort of like watching an overweight, uncoordinated middle-aged guy attempt to dunk a basketball but fall flat on his face while missing the dunk. (All the better if a trampoline is involved.) It is mostly hilarious, watching that guy look so inept while falling short of his goals, but there is a bit of sadness mixed in with the laughter. It is a condescending kind of love, because we are sort of celebrating failure, but that love is nonetheless sincere. We are genuinely grateful that the guy attempted to dunk in the first place.

Like most metaphors, this one is imperfect. A bad film happens not by clumsiness but a series of deliberate, and poor choices. So in “Road House,” for example, someone chose to include a bit of dialogue explaining that Patrick Swayze’s character Dalton (no last name), despite being a careerist bar bouncer, went to N.Y.U. where he studied Philosophy. (“You know, the meaning of life and all that shit.”) Another line of dialogue in comes from a chief lackey for the bad guy who says to Dalton, “I used to fuck guys like you in prison.” Someone wrote or improvised that dialogue and someone else approved their inclusion in the final cut. I’ve probably never heard a more delightfully absurd character detail nor a more psychotic and insane combination of self-aggrandization and threat. (I mean that guy was proud of what he did in prison.) What measure of madness and brilliance prompted those choices? These snippets are some of the only scraps of information we get into these characters backstories, yet they hardly explain their bizarre decisions and the baffling situations they find themselves in.

This isn’t a film that is all that interested in its characters. Even “Zen and the Art of Nightclub Bouncing” Dalton is a facsimile of a more traditional action protagonist, with his painful past and vaguely-defined Eastern spirituality which medicates it. Taking shortcuts with characterization is an old standard with action films, but usually the payoff is…action. “Road House” has mostly a dearth of action, with the occasional brief and bloody confrontation thrown in to give us just a little taste. (Someone gets their throat ripped out in this movie. Their throat!) Even the final confrontation offers little of the thrills which the film relentlessly builds to.

Instead, it meanders into a mostly incoherent plot which I suppose can be construed as some sort of parable about the power of local cartels to defeat the aggressive business tactics of national chains. The aptly named Brad Weasley (Ben Gazzara) is the oppressive business magnate who injected economic life into a small Kansas town, but not without a spiritual cost. Weasley lords over the town like the king of a very small kingdom and extorts money from all the local businesses and dictates to everyone what is what. Normally, those at the top of the economic food chain try to placate the masses in order to keep them complicit in their own oppression, but not Weasley. He terrorizes the “little guys” who don’t bow down to his authority, going so far as to take a monster truck to a car lot owned by an independent-minded auto dealer. Eventually all this posturing escalates to lethal levels, cajoling Dalton out of his pacifism, who was really only in town to clean up a local road house anyway and had no reason to get involved. Weasley could have had it all if had simply minded his own business. Why not give Weasley a coherent worldview and reasonable motivation to do what he does?

There are more weird choices in this film to discuss, including a romance involving Kelly Lynch which is more contrived then something out of “The Bachelor” and Dalton’s mentorship by Sam Elliot, but why bother? I won’t come any closer to figuring out this film’s perspective. That is, I think, really where the love for bad films come from. There is something refreshing in a point-of-view you don’t really get. “So bad their good films” are like having a friend who constantly has baffling opinions like “Culture Club is one of the top 3 bands of all time, behind only Disturbed and Elvis Presley.” You honestly can’t tell if your friend is crazy or brilliant, but that friend believes what they are saying wholeheartedly. Having those people in your life is awesome, and so is “Road House.”

4/5

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Dumb and Dumber

Dumb and Dumber

A familiar ode to the blissful joys of perpetual ignorance and heterosexual male relationships.

It was a strange experience seeing this film for the umpteenth time, with my many memories of watching and quoting it having been unregarded for so long. “Dumb and Dumber” was a very early entry into the canon of comedies that would formulate my teenage sense of humor, along with being the world’s first experience with the Farrelly brothers, and one of the three films that helped launch the career of Jim Carrey. (With “The Mask,” “Ace Ventura” and “Dumb and Dumber,” 1994 was a very big year for Jim Carrey.) It is one of those films which has given me more laughter than I could ever hope to recall, though many dusty memories were ignited by watching it again. However, aside from a few forced chuckles, the laughter wasn’t really there. Just the memories of laughters gone by.

Few comedies can truly feel timeless, and “Dumb and Dumber” certainly isn’t, but it has aged better than you might expect. Its “90s” trappings are less the centerpiece here than the quasi-brilliant performances of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels as Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne, two of the most sublimely stupid character to ever to grace the silver screen.  Their endearing affection for one another and childlike zest for life is infectious, bolstered by the compelling reactions of the reasonably intelligent characters that are so baffled by the otherworldly idiocy that spews from Harry and Lloyd’s mouths they aren’t sure if their words are genius or otherworldly idiotic. They sort of transcend traditional notions of intelligence.  The chemistry and timing between Daniels (serious actor) and Carrey (mostly non-serious actor) has to place them amongst the best comedic duos of the 1990s. This film is inconceivable without these two as leads.

As characters Harry and Lloyd are so clueless that they couldn’t possibly sustain narrative arcs. They merely saunter from one situation to another, and react like pair of dogs that keep running into a wall and eating their own poop while smiling contentedly the whole time. You can’t help but root for them. Ostensibly Harry and Lloyd intend to deliver a briefcase from Rhode Island to Colorado, but their attention span is too short to worry about it for long. They have tails to chase.

Do films have a limited number of laughs that they can generate within us? It is hard to laugh when you anticipate every funny moment with the giddiness of a girl at a One Direction concert. Perhaps if I waited twenty years, I might forget enough of the film that it could extract some giggles from me, but I doubt it. More likely I’ll get the same nostalgic bemusement I got this time, only with more potency. This might sound like I didn’t enjoy the film, but that would be the wrong impression to give. This is a film I enjoy immensely, like reminiscing with an old friend that tells you the same-old jokes with the same-old punchlines but that you like hearing anyway.

It does makes me a little sad that a comedy I admire will likely never make me laugh again. Not because I have changed and outgrew the jokes, because I haven’t. I just know all of its moves so well, and have laughed that its originality and spontaneity have been used up. The humor cannot offer anything new. It merely invokes all the laughter that I once experienced. With the return of Daniels and Carrey to the sequel coming out later this year, there is hope for a laughter Renaissance. Until then, “Dumb and Dumber” will continue to remind me how much it used to make me laugh.

4/5

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Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

Home_Alone_2

A bad early 90s classic that is actually good, because it’s bad.

Having just chided “Anchorman 2” for being an uninspired rehashing of its better and more original predecessor, it would seem contradictory for me to heap praise on another sequel for doing the exact same thing. Chalk it up to nostalgic bias maybe, but that is exactly what I’m going to do. In taking the same themes and riffs from the first “Home Alone” movie and cranking them up to 11, “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” actually improves upon the shameless and bland middle class sentimentality of the original. Its incessant stupidity is like a running in-joke throughout the film, because honestly, how could such a bonkers idea actually resonate with so many people?

None of this is meant argue that “Home Alone 2” is a “good” movie. It isn’t, but I don’t think it has any interest in any traditional notion of quality. Rather, this film goes for some weird form of satire. Honestly it plays like a parody of a “Home Alone” movie, as silly as it is. In hitting all the same beats as the first film, I suspect the makers of “Home Alone 2” wanted to see just how much absurdity they could cram into this film with as little effort as possible, while still keeping the masses on board. In generating over 350 millions dollars in domestic tickets sales, despite receiving a paltry 24% approval rating from critics per Rotten Tomatoes, it looks as though the filmmakers experience was a success. (While Rotten Tomatoes didn’t exist in 1992, nevertheless odds are good that the film critic in your local newspaper told you it was terrible and that you shouldn’t see it, but your family saw it anyway.)

I doubt this film could have stolen any less material from the original. It stars the same emotionally neglected son, Kevin McCallister (Macauley Culkin, whose indelible charisma and sharp delivery as the child star are the only reason these films work at all,) who once again improbably gets the solitude and freedom he so desperately craves when his overlarge family forgets about him amidst their hectic travel plans. The only difference this time is that a mishap at the airport sends him to New York City while everyone else heads south to Miami for Christmas. Armed with his dad’s wallet and an extremely versatile Talkboy device, Kevin’s freedom is initially intoxicating. Slowly, he realizes how big and unmanageable the world is without his family, and of courses misses them. This is an annoyingly superficial and irritating lesson which is further reinforced by an initially horrifying side character who turns out to be a sage with a heart of gold. (The Homeless Pigeon Lady, played with a bemused indifference by Brenda Flicker.) Do flmmakers really think kids and adults are so stupid? (Yes.) We also get the box-office required, Looney Tunes-inspired showdown between Kevin and a couple of buffoonish burglars, the Sticky Bandits, which has nothing to do with anything. This is nevertheless a great source for a lot of cheap physical gags, as Kevin rigs an abandoned house with booby traps that would kill most humans, but not are shockingly durable villains.

This film is a master class in camera-mugging led by legendary overactor Daniel Stern, whose finest moment as one of the Sticky Bandits involves howls of pain caused by an electric current so severe that he is briefly transformed into a skeleton. He is not alone in this, as Tim Curry, Rob Schneider, and Dana Ivey are the goofy members of a hotel staff so stupid they fall for the old “Angels with Filthy Souls” trick. Joe Pesci is as mumbly as ever, while all the other actors generate a different kind of laughter as they drip through all kinds of sappy, self-righteous dialogue, which plays every bit as ridiculous as all the bawdy comedy.

Can a film be terrible and still be a classic? I think so. I, of course, regard “Home Alone 2” with a sort of absurdist brilliance, but even if this review is the insane ramblings of a “Home Alone” homer, its 24% on the Tomatometer is far less important in considering its status as a classic than its box office take. A classic denotes a film which resonated, and keeps resonating with a mass of people. A classic is a collective fond memory that can be relived and shared with others, serious criticism be damned. For my generation, the “Home Alone” films certainly are that. For the millions of us that were under the age of ten in the early 90s, explicating “Home Alone” from your childhood is impossible.

3.5/5

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Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Anchorman 2

A very sad case of Sequelitis.

Here is a definition of sequelitis that I pulled from Urbandictionary.com: “A medical condition propogated (sp) by a combination of commercial success and creative ineptitude.” Thanks Zizz! (Note: A more credible source was not available.) That is admittedly a harsh statement to apply to “Anchorman 2,” but it isn’t that far off the mark. It was infuriating to see a film so hamstrung by the success of its predecessor that it generates only the most modest of a modicum of originality in what amounts to a more-expensive re-hashing of jokes that were done better in the first film. (Often literally.)

In attempting to be a more outrageous version of “Anchorman,” I suppose you could call “Anchorman 2” a success. “Anchorman 2” is certainly more than “Anchorman.” An early car-crash flashes the money and our-movie-is-going-to-make-you-money-so-back-off-studio-executive-and-let-us-do-whatever-we-want-bat-shit insanity that were clearly at the filmmaker’s disposal here, as a number of CGI objects, including bowling balls and scorpions, careen into the newly-reassembled news team in a savory, absurdity-soaking slow-motion in the back of a ditch-bound driverless van. The filmmakers also had enough of a leash from the studio to include scenes in which Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) jive-talks at a dinner with his African-American girlfriend’s family, smokes crack on camera, and nurses a baby shark back to health. (Even specific jokes are taken from the first film. We get a “picking out a condom” scene which piggybacks the “picking out a cologne” scene from the first, an even-bigger and more cameo-filled brawl between news stations, and another “Baxter saves the day” bit, to name three.)

The more salient question is whether or not all this rampant creative and financial license makes for better comedy, to which the answer is, not really. Most of the humor is taken from the first film, only distributed in a much-less effective balance. The crowd-pleasing Brick (Steve Carell,) for example, has increased the heights of his stupendous stupidity in this film, with a lot of help from his equally brain-dead love interest played by Kristen Wiig, with increased scene time to boost. Ron Burgundy has become even more brash and clueless since the last film, although the degree of his brashness and cluelessness is predicated on the needs of whatever particular setpiece he is in. Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd,) Champ Kind (Dave Koechner,) and Ron’s perpetually put-upon ex-wife Veronica (Christina Applegate) are lost in the shenanigans or otherwise have the thankless tasks of being less ridiculous (and therefore more forgettable) than Brick and Ron.

While “Anchorman 2’s” plot is every bit as meaningless as its predecessors, the film has a strange serious streak which doesn’t jive with the rest of the film. It involves a cynical critique about the creation of a CNN-style news network called GNN and the constantly-manufactured 24-hour news cycle it would help generate. There are even a couple of characters, the Rupert Murdoch-inspired owner played by Josh Lawson and the news network’s manager Linda Jackson (Meagan Good,) who are playing their scenes so straight that they don’t seem to realize that they are in a comedy. Paired across Will Ferrell, they look as though they are involved in two very different movies, resulting in a lot of uncomfortable scenes.

The prodigious level of talent involved in this film is undeniable, which is why it was so grating at times to watch. I suspect that everybody involved in its filming had an absolute blast working on “Anchorman 2,” and loved what they did, but therein might lie the problem. Giving so many funny people so much money to make a comedy sounds great, but I think they were simply too in love with what they did in the first film to give this one a chance, but what do I know? Well, I know I didn’t laugh very much while watching this movie, and neither did very many people in my theater. There were a lot of gasps, though.

2/5

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