Sunday, August 23, 2009

Review: Inglourious Basterds

Around the midpoint of Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Inglourious Basterds, a character is questioned about the inclusion of a director’s name on her theater marquee. “I’m French,” she responds. “We respect directors in our country.” That’s the first of two comments aimed as much at off-screen critics as it is towards other onscreen characters, but it’s also one of handful of references Tarantino makes here about films and filmmakers in general (and their power in particular). His new movie is a deliriously cinematic experience filled with brilliant dialogue, fantastic performances, sudden violence, and assured directing. Fancy adjectives aside, Inglourious Basterds is also a shit-ton of fun and possibly the most entertaining movie of the whole goddamn summer.
It begins with one of the best opening scenes I’ve seen in quite some time. A dairy farmer in 1940’s rural France swings his axe at a stump outside the small shack he shares with his daughters as four Germans approach on motorcycles. Upon arrival the Nazi officer requests to talk with the farmer alone inside his home. The two men discuss milk, nicknames, duty, vermin (actually the Nazi does most of the talking)… this goes on for roughly twenty minutes or more, but it’s never less than fascinating. Why is a scene of two guys chatting one of the best and most interesting of the year? Two big reasons… Christoph Waltz’ stunning portrayal of Col. Hans Landa and Tarantino’s razor-sharp script. We’re moving towards something violent and terrible, and even before the camera slowly dips below the floorboards to reveal a family of Jews hiding for their lives we know that not everyone will live to squeeze another cow udder.
That first scene represents chapter one out of the five that comprise Inglourious Basterds, and it also serves to encapsulate all that makes the movie great. There are laughs, both legitimate and nervous, it introduces an extremely talented new actor to American movie-goers, and an inexorable tension leads you firmly along moving from whimsy to curiosity to terror… The rest of the film follows that formula, but it does so by periodically shifting the ingredients a bit. Some scenes are laugh-aloud funny, some are brutal and cringe-inducing, some are emotionally heavy, and some will have the audience cheering and clapping. The remaining four chapters introduce us to the Basterds, the mysterious and beautiful owner of a Parisian theater, a British OSS-led assassination plot, and then culminates in thirty-minutes of pure bliss filled with suspense, heartbreak, surprises, and grindhouse-inspired carnage. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.
It needs to be said that regardless of what the marketing for the film is trying to tell you, the movie is about more than just Brad Pitt and his rampaging Basterds. Which should also tell you that this is not a full-on action movie. There are three story threads running through the film that all wind together towards an explosive finale. (I’ll give a brief rundown of each, but my preference for movies that are strong in story and plot is to let the audience experience it for themselves.) Pitt’s squad of Jewish-American soldiers played by Eli Roth, BJ Novak, and others is formed with a simple mission… terrorize and kill as many Nazis as possible. They do so in brutal and bloody ways, and in the rare circumstances where they do leave a survivor it’s with a lasting mark by which to remember them. A second storyline finds the British OSS planning and orchestrating a bold and decisive assassination. A low-key (but still miscast) Mike Myers is the general behind the plan who sends Lt. Archie Hickox (Michael Fassbender) into France to lead the mission alongside the Basterds. The third thread, and the source of the film’s heart and soul, follows a Jewish woman named Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) who’s hiding in plain sight in German-occupied Paris. A famous German soldier becomes smitten with her and arranges for her theater to host a high profile premiere for a new propaganda film by Joseph Goebbels. She’s spent the last several years trying to survive simply by blending in, but when the opportunity arises it’s her actions that lead to the film’s incredible final conflagration.
Much praise has already been bestowed upon Waltz’ Col. Landa, and the performance deserves every bit of it (and more). Landa is a master interrogator and detective (he even pulls out a pipe early on that would make Sherlock Holmes jealous), and Waltz presents his evil machinations as part of an irresistible and infectious force. Even knowing what Landa’s intentions are you can’t help but be charmed and mesmerized by Waltz’ charisma, playful spirit, and winking expressions. He’s the loquacious Nazi uncle we all wish we had as children… at least until he knows you’re his, the laughter and smiles disappear, and he stares at you with a icy and predetermined resolve. At which point you’re completely fucked. Waltz could play nothing but interrogators for the rest of his career, and I would never tire of watching him work. (And while that may be better than his current resume of German TV movies, I hope he actually gets a bit more variety.) Laurent’s is the other fantastic performance here as Shosanna runs the gamut of emotions from loss to love to fear to rage. Watch the scene in the cafe where she meets Landa unexpectedly for the second time, watch her beautiful but terror-filled face as she silently pleads not to be left alone with him, and see if you aren’t moved. (And if you’re like me you’ll also immediately begin adding her other work to your Netflix queue.)
Tarantino wisely eschews his love of time manipulation in favor of telling a straight-forward (well linear anyway) story. And while he doesn’t play with time, he most certainly toys with history. By that I mean he doesn’t let history get in the way of the story he and his characters have to tell, and it’s a welcome freedom. He also changes his tune when it comes to the film’s soundtrack. With one surprising and anachronistic exception, the film is absent his usual selection of pop and rock cues. Instead we get an incredible score from Ennio Morricone (not original, but still perfectly used) that drives the action, suspense, and emotions equally well. Another Tarantino habit has been the inclusion of odes and homages to films of the past, and while he still does that here he also gives some more direct and meaningful love to the cinema itself. The theater is a beautiful reproduction of the kind of experience modern day cineplexes haven’t offered in years, and here Tarantino turns it into the final battleground between good and evil. His camera follows Shosanna loading film into the projector, her hands working the sprockets and spool box doors efficiently and lovingly. The propaganda film, Nation’s Pride, is meant to rally the Nazis, and Tarantino’s film around it is meant to rally the modern day audience (and it succeeds).

Pitt’s performance shouldn’t surprise anyone, but it may serve as a reminder that he’s at his best in roles that lean oddly comedic. Some may see his Tennessee mountain-man as a caricature, and while I’m open to that argument his commitment to the character and delivery of some of the film’s funniest lines has won me over regardless. Most of the remaining performances are solid, but two of them stand out as less than that. On the minor end, Fassbender misplays his British film critic-turned-soldier by over-doing the “jolly good” bits of dialogue most severely when we first meet him opposite Myers. The fact that Myers gives the more subdued performance of the two is shocking to say the least. And then there’s Eli Fucking Roth. He plays a Basterd nicknamed “The Bear-Jew” by the Nazi soldiers who’ve heard tales of him bashing in heads with a baseball bat. The character is imposing enough to overcome most of Roth’s suckage, but not enough of it. He murders every piece of dialogue he’s given, misses every comedic beat (aside from one involving Italian hand gestures), and his expressions consist solely of smarmy smirk or pursed-lipped psycho stare. It’s almost enough to wish Tarantino had played the role himself… okay, that’s not true, but Roth is pretty damn bad.
There are a handful of smaller issues in addition to Roth’s poor thespian skills including a light feeling of inconsistency that runs throughout the film. Tarantino’s use of subtitles is generous and much-appreciated, but there are a handful of scenes (or even parts of otherwise translated scenes) that exist without them. These aren’t just background dialogue snippets, these are characters front and center saying things I don’t understand when a minute later their words are again transcribed for my uni-lingual ears. The inclusion of Samuel L. Jackson’s voice narrating Stiglitz’ introduction and a very short lesson on nitrate-based film gets a laugh from the audience, but it’s distracting as hell. And even if it wasn’t, to use it only twice in a 153-minute film seems unnecessary and gimmicky. And speaking of Stiglitz’ stylized intro, he’s the only Basterd who gets such a lead-in. Regardless of how enjoyable that mini-movie intro is (and it is very cool), it again stands apart from the rest of the film. And to show how open I was to finding faults with the film, I also took issue with the opening credits that change fonts four times… why? It stands out and takes the attention away from the excellent opening theme music.
These are valid criticisms, but their presence doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable. As wild as things may get, Tarantino always demonstrates a firm grip on what we’re seeing and hearing. This is easily his most mature and assured film, and while it’s filled with his stylistic touches it’s devoid of idiosyncrasies that exist just for the sake of it (although Jackson explaining the properties of nitrate film to us comes close). His writing here avoids unnecessary detours into wacky pop culture tangents meant solely to up the ‘cool’ factor, and he shows an almost mastery of character, dialogue, and pacing. I’ve always felt the abundance of critical praise heaped on him over the years was misguided, but it turns out it was just premature. His skills and confidence as a director have now grown into that praise, and he strikes a knowing balance between moments of quiet reflection (no, really) and scenes of balls out sudden violence. The film is filled with beautiful and striking images… a shot framed by an open door as a girl runs for her life, cameras that glide up and over walls to follow their prey, the face of a laughing ghost flickering within some smoke, deaths marked by brutality and sadness. Have you ever cared about or found yourself worried for a Tarantino character? Probably not… at least not until now.
The pain, violence, and absurdity of every World War II genre film ever made has probably played before Tarantino’s eyes at one point or another. Inglourious Basterds is him filtering it all through his wit, enthusiasm, and artistic abilities, and turning it into his best film yet. Yes, I said it… this is his best film yet. It’s also big film-making at it’s best… not big in budget, effects, or pretense, but big in spirit, intentions, and entertainment. The film is 153 minutes long and not one of them is boring or artificial. It may be an unexpected adventure of unusual proportions and design, but it’s still the most glorious adventure of the summer.



Friday, August 14, 2009

Review: District 9

It seems to be my lot in life to never be fully in line with anyone. If you’ve searched for other reviews or have just been breezing around the world wide web of film, you’ve most likely come across piles and piles of praise for District 9, with several critics willing to label it the best film of the year. Unfortunately, I do not share my colleagues uncontrollable love for the film – but I did enjoy it quite a bit. While I readily acknowledge and happily recommend District 9 to everyone, I just don’t feel the same excitement that has lit a fire beneath the asses of so many critics.

District 9 takes place in a contemporary South Africa that is much like our own South Africa, with one important difference – an alien mothership descended over Johannesburg 28 years ago and promptly broke down, stranding more than a million crustacean like aliens on Earth. As the years passed and Earth was without a massive invasion or quantum leaps forward in technology, excitement and apprehension turned to distrust and impatience. Multi-National United (MNU) was contracted to control the alien situation, which resulted in the visitors being sequestered in District 9, a shanty-town where the only humans are gangsters and the aliens live in relative squalor. The human gangsters prey upon the aliens, trading them cat food for weapons and other items, though the alien weaponry is useless to a human as its been coded to their DNA. The story begins when our focal character, Wikus van der Merwe is tasked with organizing the transfer of nearly 2 million aliens to District 10 under the guise of an improvement of their conditions. Through him and a particularly clever alien named Christopher we come to understand the darker side of MNU and gain an insight into interspecial relations.

In his feature directorial debut, South African Neill Blomkamp has made a very dynamic entry onto the stage. His name was previously touted as being attached to direct Halo, seemingly out of nowhere, but now we can see why someone would entrust millions of dollars to this young director. Visually, District 9 is consistently stunning whether we’re following Wikus through the district or in the midst of a frantic gun battle in the slums. Blomkamp even manages to take my most hated of shots, one where the camera is attached to the actor but facing him (see Pi or Apocalyptco) and make it interesting by mounting the camera to the end of the gun in the middle of a firefight. Bravo. Blomkamp gets great performances out of a cast of people most of us have never seen, including first time actor Sharlto Copley, who absolutely owns every minute he’s on screen. The digital effects have been the object of much adulation and with great reason – they’re absolutely fantastic. Surely, any person who knows computers exist realizes and can see the aliens and their ships are CGI, but as for as CGI goes, this is near perfect stuff.

If I had a problem with the film or if I were to point a finger at a cause for my lesser excitement, it would be story. Perhaps in a generation of people 15 years removed from apartheid the story could be considered deeper than what it is – but it shouldn’t be, if history classes are still in session. You see, the aliens represent black South Africaners while everyone else represents white South Africaners, representative of a time that ended in 1994 when segregation, or apartheid, was not just accepted but enforced as law. Certainly much of the film draws inspiration directly from tales of survivors, of which there are millions, and adds the requisite amount of evil white-scientist testing to make you root for the right team. The film isn’t necessarily smart, or any smarter than any other apartheid movie, but it is capable and emotional. Within moments, while some laughed at the plight of the prawns, as they’re derogatorily called, I felt shame for being a human not even of that world. Surely we could muster some greater response than forced containment if we were visited by beings from the sky?

While it’s apartheid base didn’t wow me on that basis (make no mistake the film can be heartbreakingly emotional, if not totally original when replacing humans for aliens) it didn’t kill the film either. No, my problem was with characterizations. This may get slightly spoilery for a bit. You may have noticed I described Wikus as our “central character,” but not as our hero because he is anything but. Wikus is, at first, a pawn of a large corporation willing to forcefully evict the aliens from their homes without the slightest pause. Later, he is shown to be irrationally selfish, a trait he maintains even after he forms what is almost a bond of friendship with the alien Christopher. That bond is easily broken, however, and Wikus’ motivations remain clearly in his self-serving camp where he is more important than two million sentient aliens. It is this selfishness that disconnected me from the film. I felt like I didn’t totally care about Wikus -he was kind of a prick. Just that one character flaw in him and it dampened my entire movie going experience. Strange how the mind works.

All of that being said, District 9 is among the best films of the year. I have trouble declaring it tops of the year as it is fairly different from what else has come out already. It splits itself between being en emotional drama and a balls out action flick. The first half of the film is very emotional as we connect with the aliens and the last half is alarmingly exciting as the shit hits the fan and the bodies hit the floor, ceiling, and everything else nearby. Yes, the last part of the film is full of amazing action and some of the coolest battle scenes of the year and some of the best gunfights of the last several. The cool factor explodes with alien weaprony, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and the mechanized fighting suit which kicks tons of ass. For a few moments you forget about the emotion you felt earlier as you bounce up and down in your chair to the gallons of blood sprayed around – there are several deaths that are worthy of applause.

By now you’re no doubt as confused as I am – I say almost nothing bad about the movie but preface the review by saying I didn’t love it like everyone else. But therein is the rub – I didn’t love it like everyone else. But I did love it. District 9 is a great film that had room to be better, but ultimately was more than satisfying and lived up to all of my expectations and managed to surprise me at several turns. I applauded the splattergore moments and felt oddly touched by the emotional connection created to the prawns. Go see this movie.



Thursday, August 13, 2009

Review: The Hurt Locker

Two days after seeing The Hurt Locker, I’m sitting her poised at my computer screen staring blankly off into the middle nothing trying to figure out how to frame a review for it. I’ve got nothing. What I wish I had was about two more weeks to let the movie fully sink in, getting the weight of it directly off my chest in order to step out away from it enough to realize what I’ve experienced.

Of course, this statement alone and the difficulty I’m having putting words together speaks volumes for the film. I can say this: The Hurt Locker is the best film I’ve seen all year. It’s a complete package of strong, yet minimal writing, seasoned directing, and some of the best acting that this year will most likely see.

Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) is joining Bravo Company alongside Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) with a little over a month to go in their rotation. They’re an EOD squad – investigating and disabling bombs in Baghdad, a city where the threats blend in with the civilians. As the rotation nears its end, the men have to deal seriously with the devastation of knowing that they could die at any moment and the strength to face that danger head on.

In a very real sense, this movie is the first of its kind. The first boots-on-the-ground Iraq War film. It immediately places the audience in the dusty streets of Baghdad and refuses to let anyone leave until the end. What the film does most effectively – as a credit to the brilliant screenwriting of Mark Boal, whose experiences while embedded as a journalist in Iraq have shaped the story with authenticity – is to force the audience to feel the intense, exhaustive duty of existing in a foreign environment and waking up every morning with the very real possibility of being gunned down or being turned into human shrapnel by a relentless enemy. Complementing this, director Katherine Bigelow’s vision paired with Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography truly embeds the audience as the fourth man in the Humvee with the soldiers.

Bigelow has created an apprehensive feel by consistently creating boundaries. We’re inside a cramped Humvee. We’re within the confined space of the thin Iraqi streets. We’re within the safe zone blast perimeter dismantling a bomb. This theme is bolstered by a script that introduces us to characters without ever revealing all that much about them. By the end of the film, you intimately know each of the men through their actions, gaining very little in the way of personal details in exchange for something much, much deeper.

This is all mirrored by the structure of the film. Instead of a traditional narrative arc, Bigelow and company opt for showing mission after mission with a few breath-catching moments expertly placed in between. The bulk of the film is a single story told over and over again with different dangers, different details, and different dimensions. It creates this austere environment – confined but not claustrophobic – that displays the relentlessness of the job that those soldiers are undertaking. Every day is the same even if the details change.

Of course on top of this solid foundation is the acting talent, a group that elevates the subject matter in the strongest way possible. Anthony Mackie already garnered a well-deserved Indie Spirit Award nomination last year, but the real standout is Jeremy Renner. Renner’s performance is visceral and dynamic, building a character one edge at a time until a cowboy becomes a greatly well-rounded expert in a desolate, lonely world. His portrayal deserves strong recognition, if not a few award nominations of his own. Sergeant James has a fire within him, and Renner is as explosive as the IEDs his team is working to disengage. There’s a very real parallel there – while clipping wires and disarming heavy metal objects that could take out city blocks, Renner’s James is constantly trying to suppress his own heightened nature although not always successfully.

The last important feature to mention is the clever use of the known acting talent. Bigelow scores a major win by casting Guy Pierce, Ralph Feinnes, and David Morse in smaller roles. Somehow, it breathes a lot of life into the production by placing the focus on some younger, lesser-known talent while the seasoned veterans build upon the value at several key points along the way.

The scoring is sparse but strong. The editing is fantastic – especially a scene involving a man with a bomb strapped to his chest. The story is a fascinatingly engaging one that benefits from brilliant camera work and noteworthy performances all the way around. Make no mistake – this will be a hard film to watch for most anyone, but it’s well worth it. It’s above all else an action film, but it utilizes the characters and stories coming out of Baghdad in a way that no other movie has done so far and in a way that honors men and women that have an extremely dangerous, extremely integral job.

Most of all, it achieves all of this without even once getting political. It doesn’t even edge up close. It’s a story about people, and the cast and crew never lose sight of that or attempt to inject any ulterior meaning into the narrative. It’s refreshing considering the alternatives, but the filmmakers were smart and confident enough to realize how fascinating their subject matter was and enough to avoid artificially dressing it up in the heavy shroud of political clamoring.

I imagine with a few more weeks to digest everything I’ve seen – and there are some sickeningly intense moments – I might be able to come up with better ways of characterizing a film that defies several conventions, but for now, all I can really say is that if you have a chance to see it, you shouldn’t hesitate to do so.



Saturday, August 1, 2009

Review: G-Force


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This isn’t easy to write. I say that for several reasons, the first and foremost being the nature of the film – part six of an octilogy. Is it possible to divorce this movie from the other installments to let it stand or fall on its own merits or failings? Or it is better to discuss it within the greater context of the series? I admit, I’m at a loss.
But I’m not surprised to be at a loss. Going into the theater, I wasn’t sure whether I’d be praising Half Blood Prince to the castle towers or shaking my head in disappointment – but I knew that no matter what, it would be overwhelming. As for the giant praise or crushing disappointment, the result was actually somewhere in the middle.
With Lord Voldemort out in the open, his Death Eaters are wreaking havoc on the wizard world and the real world alike. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) have transcended the student-teacher relationship to become good friends, working together to bring retired professor Horace Slughorn (Jom Broadbent) to Hogwart’s in order to uncover a dark secret he’s kept hidden for years – a secret that may be the key to destroying Voldemort. However, with the fate of the world at stake, all of the students at Hogwart’s – including Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) – are dealing with the much stronger force of teenage hormones and young love.
It would be disingenuous of me to claim that I wasn’t completely psyched for this film. I’ve been a Potter fan ever since the first book, and it’s been a fantastic journey to watch these characters grow up and grow together. That journey has been augmented by the range of directors and crew that have worked on the projects, each bringing a unique vision to the table. Oddly enough, even though David Yates has returned for his second Potter flick (his first being 2007’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) it seems like another director has yet again set on making his mark on the series.
Most of that is owed to the fact that Yates is still evolving as a director, and the rest of it is owed to the marked difference in tone between the two books that he’s adapted so far. Where Order was shot almost like a gritty documentary film (amidst the sweeping shots), Half-Blood Prince is almost noir-like in its tone. It instantly dives into the depths of the struggle facing the world – specifically with a gorgeous scene in which three Death Eaters destroy the Millennium Bridge in London while people flee for their lives. It’s never egregious, but it’s clear that the film has no qualms with very real danger, no problem threatening the lives of its characters, no issue with placing well-loved characters in mortal peril.
I realize that that’s been a common theme throughout the films, but there’s something far more severe and murderous about this film than the fantastical dangers of the first few. Trolls and dragons are one thing, but a crazed witch who wants nothing more than to rip the soul right out of your body is another.
Those dark moments are woven between a greater story of romance – and all the fist-clenching frustration that comes with it – wherein all the characters seem to rise above what they once were. Ginny (Bonnie Wright) in particular shines through, building on the power she gained in the last film to become an independent young woman that proves more complex with every scene. If the flirtation between her and Harry has been cute in the past, it explodes into a heavy tension that stands steadfast between them in every scene they share. It’s a similar story for Ron and Hermione, and it stands as a testament to how these young actors have exceeded their talent-level, rising to the occasion that this storyline demands.
The dark-side of character growth comes from Tom Felton who has been tethered to a very one-dimensional Draco Malfoy in the other films. In the same way that the character has been tapped to do a great task for The Dark Lord, Felton has been tapped to take on a lot more than he has in the past. Luckily, Felton goes above and beyond what’s required of him, creating a truly rounded character that finally shows the complicated nature of what has otherwise been a hollow sub-antagonist. We get the other side of the bully. While he’s cowardly and full of anger, Malfoy is relatable for the first time in the series.
Unfortunately, that story demand does lead to two specific flaws. The first being a tendency toward feeling a bit bi-polar. It’s clear that efforts were made to make the film cohesive, but those efforts fall noticeably short considering just how starkly different the two tones are. At certain points it feels like a clever romantic comedy was shoved together with a gritty thriller. Most of the time it works, but a significant amount of times it doesn’t.
The second problem is that with so many characters stepping up, a few that audiences are familiar with have to take a backseat, and the characters that are shown have to share a finite (albeit gigantic) run-time with each other. While the minimization of certain characters, and the complete lack of others (who will not be named) might not bother someone who hasn’t seen the other films – they will be burdened by something far more stifling: the confusion at figuring out a movie that refuses to deliver exposition. New characters (like Fenrir Greyback) are never introduced and some new situations (like two main Order members dating) are never explained. I found that incredibly refreshing, and the movie certainly stands on its own, but as with any universe as complex and alien as any fantasy, even I found myself wishing that I had watched Order of the Phoenix as a refresher course.
As far as the look of the film, you couldn’t ask for a more beautifully shot feature. The fact that the story is character-driven is not lost on Yates or cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Amelie). Amidst the sweeping shots of the castle and its grounds are a plethora of shots that add as much to the characters as the actors do. Pulling in tight as Harry comforts Hermione, marginalizing characters as they’re forced to watch the person they love in another’s arms, Hiding Malfoy behind walls and windows as he attempts a dark task that’s been given to him by Voldemort. The visuals are so moving that you’ll start to think you’re seated on the stone steps of Hogwart’s watching the characters laugh, argue and fall in love.
The other aspect of filmmaking that was improved upon (as if there was much room for it in the first place) was the score. I’ve always been impressed by the music created for these films, but what Nicholas Hooper has done here is transcendent.
The acting has also improved. While it’s clear that the younger talent still has a few things to learn (and they are learning), the veteran cast is astonishingly good. Maggie Smith carries herself brilliantly, somehow able to express both outrage and concern at the same time while channeling everyone on the planet’s grandmother. Michael Gambon, of course, is at home building and reshaping a Dumbledore that continues to become more enigmatic as we learn more about him.
But far and away the standouts are Alan Rickman and the newly-added Jim Broadbent. The way Rickman plays Snape in this film makes it seem like he was holding back all these years. It makes me excited to wonder what he’ll be able to do in the upcoming films. He’s been more than fantastic in each film, but with even more to do, he proves again why he’s one of the best actors in the business.
And then there’s Jim Broadbent who deserves his own paragraph. In a pitch-perfect bit of casting, Broadbent is the breath of fresh air that this film needed. Without him, it would have felt far more cumbersome. He brings a fascinating lightness to a role that seems tailor-made for his brand of brilliance. His Slughorn is cranky, self-centric, shallow and hateful – but he’s also incredibly endearing, lonely, compassionate and even loving. Broadbent takes all of that complexity and keeps it just below the surface, becoming the gravitational pull of each scene he’s in. In so many words, Jim Broadbent is perfect.
If Broadbent is the cornerstone performance, Radcliffe’s is the pinnacle. Make no mistake – this is Daniel Radcliffe’s movie. His serious dramatic work is still shaky, but the greatest addition to the character of Harry is a solid sense of humor that he seems to have gained sometime when the audience wasn’t looking. Radcliffe’s laugh lines land squarely, making it obvious that the actor has a future in comedic roles if he wants them.
That humor is important not only for character, but also important to create a sense of worth and meaning for the entire world. It’s the moments between Ron, Hermione, Harry and Ginny that give a sense of what the crew are fighting for. At the end of the last film, Harry intimates that the group’s advantage over the dark forces is that they have true friendships to defend. It’s clear that those friendships are growing, becoming deeper, and in turn becoming more important as the focus of what these characters have to lose. As the relationships become richer, they also become more fragile and raise the stakes should they be lost.
Sure, there are a few misteps in the story telling even if it’s laudable that Yates and company would tackle such a dynamic and varied story. Hopefully, they will be able to strike a little cleaner balance with the last films, but over all I left the screening of Half-Blood Prince with a sense of urgency. It was a sense that something huge is happening and unraveling before an international audience of moviegoers. We’ve seen the evolution of the series from children’s films to what they are now – beautiful pieces of cinematic art. If you were among the ones that felt Yates had elevated the series with his last film, you’re in for an even higher level of artistic merit from the man who will (by the end) have directed more Potter film than anyone else. With that revolving door of directorial visions, it seemed odd that Yates would be chosen again for the last two, but his work on Half-Blood Prince made me realize why, and I have every confidence that he and the rest of the cast and crew will deliver something spectacular for the final chapters.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Review: Brüno

Sacha Baron Cohen is, without doubt, a comedian with balls. Armed with one of the more notorious characters from Da Ali G Show, the Peter Sellers of the 21st century puts himself in such absurd and sometimes unbelievably real situations that result in him, at various points within the film, being whipped mercilessly by a dominatrix, walking past a “God Hates Fags” protest held by Fred Phelps’s notorious Westboro Baptist Church while helplessly locked in S&M paraphernalia with another man, flamboyantly roaming the Middle East, and finally, making out with another man in a cage match while a shocked and angry audience throw increasingly large objects at him. Throughout all these ordeals, Cohen remains thoroughly and consistently enmeshed as Bruno, never once breaking character even as the situations escalate to absurd proportions. Cohen is a brilliantly talented comedian who has raised the bar of expectations for comedic performance—he may even be the first method comedian. And many of the setups within Bruno are undeniably brilliant, but unfortunately, and very disappointingly, the execution and follow-through simply doesn’t match the talent involved.

As with the feature-length adaptation of Borat, Bruno incorporates the prank-reality situations and setups into a manufactured and scripted narrative, allowing each comic episode to be a part of the character’s overall journey. After a disastrous turn of events at a European fashion show involving Bruno’s all-Velcro suit, the Austrian fashionista is exiled from the fashion world, and then decides to travel to Los Angeles to become famous, where he tries out as an extra for the show Medium, creates an outrageous American version of his fashion show which (to say the least) disturbs an unwitting test audience, adopts and exploits an African child, goes to the Middle East intending to become kidnapped, and even tries to convert himself to straightness. But the attempted crux of the film is Bruno’s off-and-on relationship with his assistant.

But Bruno becomes encumbered by its strained attempts at integrating all these episodes into a forward-moving trajectory for its title character, as if the film is trying to be a character piece rather than a collection of comic setpieces simply involving the same character. In Borat, the “plot” incorporating that title character’s journey to find Pamela Anderson was more an excuse for his comic ramblings across America and a way for the film to end with a climactic prank involving the actress rather than an actual attempt at a cohesive narrative. The unwritten contract between audience and filmmakers in that film assumed that both sets of people understood that movies like these don’t need plots, and all people really want to see is Borat involved in various comic episodes. With Bruno, the plotting is heavier and more deliberate, resulting in far more scripted moments than its predecessor, distracting from the real comic draw in these films (his interaction with real, unassuming people) and making it difficult to distinguish between what is scripted and what is real. The plotting of Bruno feels invasive rather than a convenient way to tie these setpieces together, and what the filmmakers don’t seem to understand is that the audience doesn’t need an excuse for Bruno to go to any of these places. And this extensive plotting doesn’t even pay off, as the movie finds no other way to end itself than a blandly unfunny celebrity-filled charity song, a cliché that should be far beneath Cohen displaying a depressing sign of a lack of inspiration.

Making the distinction between real and scripted even more difficult to distinguish is the fact that Bruno clearly has much higher production value than Borat, which sacrifices Borat’s on-the-go, improvisatory feel that made the crazy reality of its situations seem all the more real. Bruno looks too sleek and refined to give off the same feeling of immediacy, and thus many of its comic situations lose their intended shock value.

But Bruno’s biggest problem is in the overall execution of these real moments, and perhaps this problem can be best exemplified with a description of the character’s interview with former pop star and American Idol judge Paula Abdul. Like in many moments of Bruno, the comic setup itself is brilliant. Bruno invites Abdul into an empty rented house, where the only furniture he has provided are Mexican laborers crouched on their hands and knees. In Cohen’s wonderful critical and satirical fashion, Bruno convinces Abdul to sit on the “furniture” while she talks about her charity work. But the meeting is cut short when a tray of entrees are brought out, served on another Mexican laborer’s bare body, and Abdul abruptly leaves. The setup is genius, but Cohen never seems to give these situations enough time to breathe, follow through, and reach their real comic potential before he pulls out the truly absurd that predictably forces his interview subjects to abandon ship.

In Da Ali G Show, Cohen allowed all his characters to bring out the absurd in a deliberate slow burn fashion, extending each joke for all its potential comic gold. Cohen had patience as the Bruno of the show, allowing his interview subjects to trust him before making them feel uncomfortable. The Bruno of the film, however, seems hurried to take each situation from A to Z, as if his goal is to get his unwitting subjects to leave the situation as soon as possible. Same holds true for his interview with a member of a terrorist organization and his attempted seduction of Ron Paul. Both are brilliant situations, but one can’t help but feel that there was something funnier to be mined within them, that Cohen didn’t play them for all the potential therein. The setups themselves are far funnier than how Cohen uses them.

Will Bruno make you laugh throughout? Probably. Will moments of it shock and appall you? Most likely. Has Cohen retained his reputation as one of the most talented and daring comedians of this, or any, era? Absolutely. But will you leave feeling that there could have been a funnier Bruno movie somewhere out there? I certainly did.



Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Review: Public Enemies

Before talking about what Public Enemies is, it’d be good to put on the table everything it isn’t. First of all, it isn’t a conscious genre exercise. While Public Enemies retains a classical narrative framework familiar to the gangster film—switching back-and-forth between parallel stories of police and the gangsters in a plot device that’s been used in everything from White Heat to The Departed—it is neither a self-conscious tongue-in-cheek reworking of the genre’s many myths and conventions nor is it a conscious homage to the classic form of a genre that reached its initial peak during the time period portrayed. So Public Enemies is not something that will become a benchmark in the gangster film canon, neither progressing the genre towards a radical new territory nor revisiting its classic form. It seems to waver somewhere in the middle, approaching the time period with digital camerawork that results in a refreshing new style for the genre (though it’s not always effective) while being wrapped up in conventional, straightforward, and even predictable storytelling—and both these factors work largely in the film’s favor.

There’s nothing complex about the plot of Public Enemies, which covers the last few years of John Dillinger’s (Johnny Depp) infamous career as a bank-robber in the early 1930s as he is pursued by an investigative team lead by Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Along the way, Dillinger quickly falls for Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a struggling singer that seems in equal parts attracted to Dillinger’s lifestyle as she is to his restrained charismatic charm. While Depp and Cotillard retain believable (but not amazing) chemistry, and while the story even allows the actress a few opportunities to be a bit smarter, more independent, and even a bit more badass than her character type is typically allowed to be, Public Enemies is still not “about” this love story subplot that neither stalls the film nor pushes it forward.

Public Enemies isn’t even about the bank robberies—of which the film has only three, and they are hardly its most exciting moments. What Public Enemies boils down to is a battle of egos between two men on each side of the law. And the appeal of this film is not in the tried-and-true rehashing of a familiar plot that has worked again and again, but in its masterful execution by those both in front of and behind the camera.

The performances are all around pretty spot-on. While in bare narrative terms, Depp is situated as a good guy and Bale the villain, both are envisioned with such depth and moral ambiguity as to manifest two truly fascinating multidimensional characters pitted against one another rather than being reduced to simple archetypes. Depp’s Dillinger is indeed a criminal who is capable of being violent whenever necessary, but he is never heartless or ruthless. He has an ego, but this personality aspect is interpreted more as a utility allowing him the necessary confidence to commit such ballsy crimes rather than an unattractively self-involved trait. Bale’s Purvis, meanwhile, is a man of many contradictions. He shows characteristics of nobility when need be for those he perceives as innocent, but he’s willing to go far past the line of tact to get his target. This characteristic of Purvis is thoroughly made clear in his simple but telling introductory scene: he’s an excellent marksman, but he’s willing to shoot a man in the back. The strength of the film’s lead characters and those actors embodying them are what makes Public Enemies such a joy to watch, and are the film’s greatest and most consistent strengths.

Perhaps the film’s most uneven performance is Steven Graham (of Snatch fame) as Baby Face Nelson. Graham’s is fun to watch, and he attempts a portrayal as larger-than-life and iconic as the legend of the man himself, one in which Nelson voraciously eats up the celebrity status of the gangster, hinted at with his winking nod to James Cagney. But Graham’s performance occasionally delves into caricature and feels like it comes from a completely different movie. The only reason that I mention this minor supporting character is because this performance highlights how atypically understated Depp’s Dillinger is. Forgoing the outlandish force of personality previously seen in his Jack Sparrow or his many collaborations with Tim Burton, Depp chooses to tone it down for Michael Mann, creating a character knowledgeable of his mammoth celebrity (as shown in the two great scenes in movie theaters) and exuding impervious confidence, yet Dillinger here remains grounded in a surprising degree of clear-headed, modest humanity, an elevated icon who is all to aware of his own vulnerability.

Depp’s subtle approach to Dillinger makes him a sympathetic gangster, and the modesty, intelligence and restraint Depp endows him with is also posited in the film to be the source of Dillinger’s continuing success (as opposed to the unthinking, unreserved rampage of Nelson). Perhaps Depp’s most understated performance in awhile was only made effective through the recent stardom and bankability of the longtime character actor, thus automatically giving Dillinger a superstar weight by instilling in him the persona of the modern movie star; either way, it works. Rounding out a cast of supporting caharcters who make the most out of limited, shared screen time is an effectively comic Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover, and seeing a slightly plump Crudup deliver 30s dialogue so convincingly makes Dr. Manhattan this year’s uber-chameleon.

Mann’s digital approach thankfully hits here more than it misses, as Dante Spinotti’s cinematography captures certain moments of incredible beauty and vibrancy of color that simply feels like a fresh departure from film; and once you allow yourself to sink in to the unique visual style of Public Enemies (which may take awhile), the digital aesthetic complements and stratifies rather than detracts from the film, despite the odd decision of choosing digital for a period piece. But it doesn’t work all the time. The incredible sequence at Dillinger’s wooded hideout exhibits the best and worst of the technology: it has given Mann and co. the ability to shoot with unparalleled detail, especially at night (thus replacing the annoying “day-for-night” blue hue usually used in film), but it seems like no filmmaker, including Mann, has quite mastered the art of rapidly moving the camera without it looking at least a little amateurish.

The sound design similarly contains a range of strengths and weaknesses. Characteristic of Mann, gunshots are wonderfully loud and realistic, making the action scenes that much more visceral (and it’s just so awesome to see Mann do the tommygun justice). But, showing some symptoms of the filmmaker’s occasional propensity for tone over story coherence that worked toward the detriment of Miami Vice (2006), he awkwardly throws off the levels of dialogue, sound effects and music, sometimes making the words coming out of actor’s mouths incomprehensible and causing some of the film’s opening moments to fall flat. But unlike Miami VicePublic Enemies only indulges in this practice in its initial minutes before finding a workable balance of sound. Perhaps most jarring, however, is Elliot Goldenthal’s score, which has moments of immense power, but comes and goes awkwardly and abruptly, taking one out of the experience of watching the film and making some scenes lose their intended emotional weight.

Public Enemies is an engaging and entertaining film, coupling smart and talented filmmaking with effective performances into a an end result that says nothing profoundly new, but treads both familiar and unexplored territories of the gangster genre with delightful skill and respect of audience intelligence. A comforting combination of an old story with new technological experimentation, Michael Mann is still a master storyteller who makes movies quite unlike the rest of Hollywood, and Public Enemies is his strongest effort since The Insider.



Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Karl Malden dead at 97

Oscar- and Emmy-winning actor Karl Malden died today at the age of 97. Malden began his career on Broadway in the late '30s, and after his service in World War II entered the motion picture business, appearing in acclaimed films like On The Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, where his pleasantly plain look and style fit neatly alongside the rising generation of method actors. Malden moved over to television in the '70s, starring in the long-running cop drama The Streets Of San Francisco alongside a young Michael Douglas, and later top-lining the short-lived labor drama Skag, which was one of the earliest examples of a show that critics and fans fought (vainly) to save from premature cancellation. Malden was also well-known for a series of commercials he did for American Express, and for serving as the president of The Motion Picture Academy Of Arts & Sciences from 1988 to 1993. Malden is survived by his wife of 70(!) years, and two children.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Review: "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"

Issues of personal taste usually shouldn’t be a factor when engaging in legitimate movie criticism. The good movie critic should be able to aptly assess a film’s merit regardless of their own personal preferences for what they like to see on screen. Yet when it comes to a movie like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, personal taste is the major factor that will determine the response of everybody who sees it. Those who embrace the aesthetic of Michael Bay or were a fan of the first film are most likely going to have a good time with this one. For those who think Bay’s films are emblematic of everything wrong with contemporary Hollywood cinema, Transformers 2 will prove to be further evidence to fuel their fire. While many will defend this film and many others will despise it, there’s one thing this film is sure not to do: disappoint. Whatever expectations you have going into it—whether it be a bombastic summer-fun explosions-and-cleavage fest or a bloated schizophrenic mess of incomprehensible noises and images—Bay delivers fully on these expectations.

I think there’s an argument to be made that Bay’s films are often artless trash emblematic of, if not directly detrimental to, the current state of popular cinema. But this argument I think holds more weight regarding Bay’s past work that pretended to be something it wasn’t. The cheap weeper ending of Armageddon (1998), for instance, left me feeling bitter and manipulated, and the totally misguided Pearl Harbor (2001) forced skin-deep profundity down our throats when all we really wanted was to bask in how cool Bay made it look to get our asses handed to us by the Japanese. In these films Bay gave us popcorn spectacle and pretended it was cinematic filet mignon. With Transformers 2, however, Bay doesn’t pretend he’s making anything but a silly blow’em-up kids movie overflowing with eye candy (of both the flesh and metal variety), and we’re all better off for it.

Revenge of the Fallen finds the Autobots working in line with the US military to hunt down the world’s remaining Decepticon population, but the bureaucrats in Washington want the Autobots gone because their very presence seems to lure the Decepticons to Earth soil and thus represents a threat to civilian life. Meanwhile, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and his oh-so irresistibly misadventurous parents prep his move to college and resulting long-distance relationship with Mikaela (Dame Megan Fox), who is now, naturally, a motorcycle mechanic with a predisposition to putting her ass in the air. When Sam encounters a leftover shred of the AllSpark, he unwittingly obtains Cybercryptonian knowledge. This makes him a direct target of the Decepticons, particularly a millennia-old curmudgeon named The Fallen who wants to use Sam’s knowledge as a means to, um…destroy the sun. In the meantime, Megatron is resurrected, the gang reunites with John Turturro for some (necessary?) historical contexualization and exposition, the army does some badass stuff, and an old flip-flopping former Decepticon named Jetfire directs our heroes to Egypt in search for the material source of the AllSpark: an emblem called (*ahem*) the Matrix of Leadership. All of this is peppered with extensive action setpieces predictably leading to a mammoth showdown at the pyramids.

If there is an appropriate punctuation analogy for any movie, Transformers 2 is the cinematic equivalent of the exclamation point. The film seems to be as urgent to please the viewer as it is pleased with itself, and Bay designates the quickest route to such pleasure through sensory overload. Bay has never been comfortable with a static camera or a long take, and every frame of this film is brimming with some sort of sensory appeal to the point of possible diagnosis with attention deficit disorder—many moments feel like they’re there to entertain, while others simply distract until the next action setpiece arrives. Even prolonged scenes of exposition—like the entire role of Jetfire—are coupled with the spectacle of effects and cinematography. It’s as if the filmmakers know how secondary a comprehensible plot is with a film like this. Which brings me to a question: If the accepted critical philosophy states that sequences of action or special effects should work in service to the story, what is it that we say of the type of film that never slows down enough to even let the audience realize that there’s hardly a story being serviced?

To slow down in a film like this would allow the audience to realize how little there is, not below, but on the surface. But because Bay jets through those exhausting-but-never-boring two and a half hours at such breakneck speed, the ridiculous nature of the whole venture hardly comes into full effect until the credits role. If there can be an achievement to bestow upon Transformers 2, it’s that it can easily put the willing spectator into the appropriate state of juvenile mindlessness necessary to enjoy such mindless entertainment.

One thing I think Bay detractors don’t understand about Bay fans is that most Bay fans are just as aware of how ridiculous his films are as anybody else. The heightened and self-aware state of excess is exactly what can be so appealing about films like this. No, it doesn’t make sense than Megan Fox would paint a decal on a motorcycle by standing over it with her ass in the air, but the obvious over-the-top nature of such an image is just as much an entertainment factor as is the shameless spectacle of her body. The same can be said of the logic of the entire film, and going into Transformers 2 expecting exactly what should so obviously be expected from the outset—silliness, excess, overstimulation, noise—allows one to accept all the film for exactly what knows itself to be: simple adolescent fun.

This is not to say there aren’t some problems on these terms as well. Characteristic of Bay, most of the film’s human performances are just as robotic as those of the transformers—save, of course, for Julie White as Sam’s mom, the only true comic relief in a film with about half a dozen characters attempting to play that role. The dialogue is predictably awful, hardly covered up by the film’s many visual distractions. But perhaps the film’s biggest problem is its uneven balance between the human and robot characters throughout, most evident in the climactic action sequence where it doesn’t quite know who to focus on and for how long. The first film, as a sort of origin story for the rules of human-robot interaction that exist in the Transformers universe, more effectively achieved this balance while establishing characteristics unique to each ‘bot in the process. With the exceptions of mainstays Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and Megatron, and new characters like Jetfire or the controversial twins Skids and Mudflap, every ‘bot in Transformers 2 is interchangeable. I found myself, like with the first film, merely watching big, indistinguishable chunks of metal clash by the end, indifferent to which side they belonged to.

If Transformers 2 is worth seeing on IMAX for any reason, it’s for the robot ninja fight scene in the forest, a truly beautiful sequence and the only one entirely filmed in IMAX; too bad the best action scene occurs halfway through the film. IMAX shots elsewhere are spotty and random, causing a sometimes abrupt and distracting shift in aspect ratio.

It seems too easy to point a finger at Bay and accuse films like this as being mindless trash, because these films don’t purport to be anything more significant than what they are, and thus are far less threatening than Bay detractors make them out to be. On the other side, Bay-lovers state that yes, all he does is make movies for entertainment’s sake, and he does this one thing well. I would argue here that Bay too often confuses excess with entertainment, resulting in a bloated aesthetic in desperate need of some moderation (he could take a tip or two from J.J. Abrams). That being said, Transformers 2 is exactly what one would expect from a summer movie called Transformers 2: it’s fun and it’s stupid, and there’s really nothing wrong with that.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Review: 'Year One'

If anything, watching Year One is like playing a great big game of What Could Have Been. The most obvious version of the game is to take a look at the cast and the writing talent and wonder where all of it went – like a mega-budget movie that has terrible FX. But the large amount of talent is probably the biggest downfall for the movie because, despite a giant list of names attached, very few of them have comedic styles that blend together well (or at all), and it leaves the movie feeling flat and uninteresting. Two inept hunter/gatherers (Jack Black’s Zed and Michael Cera’s Oh) are kicked out of their tribe for eating the forbidden fruit and decide to wander the early world in search of Zed’s destiny, to encounter the strange inhabitants of other civilizations, and to find the women that they want to hit over the head with a club and drag back to the cave. Front and center in the movie are Jack Black and Michael Cera – a comedy pairing that just does not work. Black’s humor is so in-your-face and Cera’s is so out-of-your-face that the two never seem to meet in the middle. It probably sounded like a great idea on paper, but it falls flat on the screen. It’s essentially Black playing Black playing a caveman (that looks and talks suspiciously like Jack Black) while Michael Cera continues the same wussy-boy straight man concept that only worked in “Arrested Development” because it came in small doses. Normally, having two leads that have no chemistry and can’t make the jokes work would cripple a film, but the movie has a crutch in the form of its supporting cast. A crutch that they rely so heavily upon that it made me wonder if director Harold Ramis realized his casting mistake early on. He does a fantastic job himself playing a version of Adam (yes, the first man ever) that’s understated and works, Hank Azaria has a great turn as a version of Abraham that seems oddly obsessed with foreskins, and David Cross (in probably his biggest role ever) is fantastic as the ever-wavering Cain who continues to help and betray the heroes along the way. Juno Temple and June Diane Raphael as the two love interests are passable, but Olivia Wilde is the true strong female presence in the flick as a Princess wishing to spread the wealth amongst the people of Sodom. The real stand out is definitely Oliver Platt who steals every single scene he’s in. His character, the High Priest, is essentially a real-life version of Hedonism-Bot (or a reincarnation of Dom Deluise’s Caesar in History of the World Part I). It might simply be the juxtaposition of seeing a well-rounded actor playing such a ridiculous role, but even so, he goes above and beyond the call of duty to create a character that’s as flamboyantly absurd as what the costume designer dressed him in. His character is one of the high marks of the film, and it seems like (once again) Ramis realized this based on how much screen time Platt gets. Which comes to the second round of What Could Have Been. I can’t help but wonder what this movie could have been like if Ramis had gotten to make it with the usual gang of idiots from the 1980s. What if it had been him alongside Bill Murray as crazy cavemen trying to impress the ladies and avoid getting stoned to death? It’s probably an unfair comparison, but it is an interesting thought considering that so much of the humor is based on a style of comedy popularized by Mel Brooks and carried into the 1980s by Ramis and his pals. Unfortunately, it’s a style that doesn’t blend well with the current style. For example – the story. It’s actually a fairly interesting one, featuring a couple of outcasts (a classic devil-may-care screw up and a classic reluctant adventurer) that see the women they love enslaved and journey into odd lands, meeting odd people and getting into trouble. Of course, there’s a sense of urgency in the story from time to time, but it’s never genuine trouble. That’s perfect for a comedy like this where there shouldn’t be any real consequences for any of the situations. People’s lives are in danger, but that’s always going to be played for laughs. Unfortunately, the scenarios are all so subdued that it doesn’t quite reach the pitch of absurdity needed to make something like this work. Putting aside the fact that Black and Cera don’t have the charm to pull something like that off, the scenes appear like they were written to be just strange enough to get a chuckle, but never absurd enough to force half the audience to bust out laughing while the other half sits wondering what’s so funny. It’s raunchy, but not nearly raunchy enough to rely on. It’s uncomfortable, but never truly absurd. It’s clever, but never really genius.
A few scenes will force some audible laughs – almost anytime the High Priest is paired with Oh, the scenes that already made you laugh from the trailer, and a scene where Oh is forced to pee while hanging upside down – but most of the jokes will warrant a small smile, like you do when your grandfather tells you a joke that was a real side-splitter back in his day. It’s not that an older style of humor isn’t still funny, it’s the personnel involved can’t make it work.
Overall, the film makes for the most average comedy audiences might see all year. It’s got a ton of name-recognition from the comedy world to draw you in, but ultimately the film steps up to the plate, points the bat at midfield, and cracks the ball directly to it. Which is unfortunate, because it might have been cool to see what might have been if this film swung for the fences.