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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Review: Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Now I know what you're thinking. Why is Weird Movie Village reviewing a romcom? Well, we've tackled other genres before, and I deemed this film worth blogging about because it rises head-and-shoulders above others in the genre.

Let me say first of all that I am not a typical romcom-type person. I'm the wrong demographic (male) and I usually find them to be cliched, boring and often rather icky. Among the romcom screenings I've attended (I don't pay to see them!) were Going the Distance, with Drew Barrymore and Justin Long, which was pretty awful; the smash-hit Bridesmaids, which actually nauseated me; and No Strings Attached, another piece of crap and a puzzlingly banal step down for Natalie Portman, fresh off her Oscar win for Black Swan. Well, she also did Thor after that, too, but at least that one was kind of fun.

So today I went into Crazy, Stupid, Love. with absolutely no expectations whatsoever and only a rudimentary idea about the plot. I already liked the work of Ryan Gosling and Julianne Moore, but after his great work in Little Miss Sunshine, I thought Steve Carell had sunk to sort of a second-string Jim Carrey (ooh, that's harsh!) in dreck like Dinner for Schmucks. So imagine my surprise from the very first scene when Moore's Emily tells Carell's Cal that she wants a divorce—and it's not a gag. My audience, trained to hoot with laughter at every line, soon calmed down when it realized that nobody was going to shit their pants or fall down a flight of stairs for yocks. Instead, Crazy, Stupid, Love. is that rare comedy that breathes real life into its characters and earns its laughs.

Short synopsis: Cal and Emily Weaver have been married for 25 years. During a miserable dinner date, she suddenly announces that she wants a divorce. As they're driving home, she admits that she'd had an affair with a co-worker, and he responds by jumping out of their moving car. Later, nursing his wounds at a bar, he repeatedly pours out his story of woe to anyone within earshot, drawing the attention of slick ladies' man Jacob Palmer (Gosling). Seomthing about Cal's plight appeals to Jacob's sympathy. He bluntly tells Cal that he's let his looks and self-esteem go to hell, and he wants to help him get both of them back. Cal reluctantly goes along.

With new clothes, a new haircut and a new outlook, he becomes Jacob's acolyte, smooth-talking the ladies and scoring regularly. But just as he has begun to make good in the singles scene, Jacob meets Hannah (Emma Stone), a young law student. For the first time in his life he wants to have a committed relationship, leaving Cal alone at the bar and longing to be reunited with his estranged wife. Eventually, all the characters collide, but I thought it worked.

I'd seen Stone before in Superbad and The House Bunny, but she really has a chance to shine as Hannah. She's got screwball timing and large, expressive eyes.

In a memorable scene, after being spurned by her unctuous boyfriend (Josh Groban!), whom she thought was going to propose to her, Hannah gets blasted, goes to Jacob's regular hangout and picks him up. At his house, she drunkenly orders him to take off his shirt, and when he complies, exposing his perfectly chiseled torso, she says, "Fuck! Seriously? It's like you're Photoshopped!" Instead of having sex, they spend the night getting to know each other. Sounds cliched, but the scene really works.

Another standout in the cast is Jonah Bobo as the Weavers' 13-year-old son, Robbie. He's desperately in love with his 17-year-old babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who is in turn in love with Cal. Robbie is also wise beyond his years, maneuvering to get his parents back together.

Moore is always good, and she serves as an emotional barometer here, but she gets her share of laughs, too. Trying to explain to Cal what led up to her decision to ask for a divorce, she says, "When I told you I had to work late, I really went to the new Twilight movie by myself. And it was so ba-a-a-d!"

I have to admit that I'm sucker for movies that have nonsensical, off-the-cuff lines like that one. At one point during her first night with Jacob, Hannah impersonates Lauren Bacall in an old High Point coffee commercial. It doesn't make any sense—it's just funny.



Marisa Tomei has a small but energetic role as a woman who goes home with Cal because she's turned on by his pathetic honesty. He promises to call her and never does, but they have an unfortunate reunion at a parent-teacher conference—witnessed by Emily—when she turns out to be Robbie's math teacher!

Kevin Bacon also appears as the slightly slimy co-worker Emily had slept with, and there's an amusing scene in which he tries to make nice with Robbie, only to be slapped down by the kid. I don't know if singer Groban has decided to start a second career as an actor here or if this was just an amusing cameo, but it is bizarre to see him.

Gosling has done a lot of good work in the past, especially in intense dramas like Half-Nelson and Blue Valentine, but Love gives him a chance to exhibit a Cary Grant-ish vibe as a womanizer you really should despise but who's just so damn charming.

And I'm so glad to see Carell do good work. Here he eschews the tired old ridiculous mugging to give us a character who, upon facing divorce from the only love he's ever known, is authentically in crisis. Some of his hesitant deliveries reach Bob Newhart-like heights, and I mean that as a compliment.

I'm not going to put any spoilers in here, but let's just say there are some twists and turns that aren't the freshest in the genre, but here they really work, and some scenes that could've been cliched are hilarious and well-realized. Unlike Bridesmaids, which lurched between attempted authentic emotion and cartoonish ridiculousness, Love's creators never let us forget that we're dealing with actual people here. I actually had to do some research to see if the screenplay had been based on an earlier French film, but no. All I have to say to directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and screenwriter Dan Fogelman, "Well done!"

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Review: Fright Night 3D

CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD

One of my fondest memories of the '80s was going to a sneak preview of a then-unknown little film called Fright Night and discovering a real gem, so I've been anxiously awaiting—while simultaneously dreading—the remake with Colin Farrell and Anton Yelchin.

The good news is...it's good!

The story has quite a few revisions, and most of them are well-judged. For those of you familiar with the original story (and I'm sure you all are), the action has been transferred from the "Leave it to Beaver"-style neighborhood to one of those creepy Poltergeist-style housing developments in the suburbs of Las Vegas. Even creepier is the fact that the collapse in the housing market has caused many families to vacate, leaving many of the homes dark and empty. Setting the story in Vegas also serves another purpose—since so many of the city's residents work at night, a vampire could easily infiltrate the populace without notice. It's a real suburban nightmare.

This Fright Night is much, much darker than the original. The 1985 version was a product of its times, almost a John Hughes horror movie enlivened by generous dollops of comedy before it turns serious in the third act, while the remake takes a grimmer, more cynical approach from the outset.

Yelchin's Charley is far more complex than William Ragsdale's original, and his relationship with Evil Ed is better realized. If you stopped to think about it, in the original, Charley's friendship with Stephen Geoffrey's super-geek didn't really make any sense, but here Ed (played much more seriously by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is Charley's ex-best friend, having been cast aside for the "cool kids" at school...and he really resents it.

Charley's girlfriend Amy, here appealingly portrayed by Imogen Poots, is one of the aforementioned "cool kids" and is clearly out of his league, but she digs his nerdiness. And this Amy is anxious to go all the way with him, in a complete reversal of Amanda Bearse's virginal version of the character. Plus—with apologies to Bearse—Poots looks more age-appropriate. Playing Charley's Mom, Toni Collette has more to do than the earlier film's Dorothy Fielding, finding herself at the receiving end of Jerry's attacks, while Fielding remained oblivious throughout.

Farrell is the casting triumph in this one. He projects an animalistic sex appeal as Jerry, and the actor looks like he's having a good time with the role. And Jerry is all alone in this one. There's no Billy Cole to run interference for him, but this vampire doesn't need a human sidekick. Whereas Chris Sarandon relied on old-fashioned suavity to lure his victims, Farrell is an instinctive, bloodthirsty animal, and he barely bothers to hide it.

Only one character—that of Peter Vincent—made me long for Roddy McDowall's original portrayal. David Tennant ("Dr. Who") plays Vincent as a Las Vegas performer, and instead of a horror movie TV show, "Fright Night" is now a gimmicky stage act inspired by Criss Angel, with a dollop of the unctuous Russell Brand thrown in. We only see a glimpse of Vincent's act; the rest of the time, he's drinking, whining and scratching his balls. The last-minute revelation of his past history with Jerry doesn't resonate, and when Farrell delivers the iconic line, "Welcome to Fright Night...for real," it's a shame. It doesn't totally ruin the film, but Tennant's Vincent is an annoying lightweight compared to McDowall's magnificent depiction.

Many other plot points and characters are reversed in the remake. Instead of Charley discovering that Jerry is a vampire, Ed is the one who finds out, and it isn't until he mysteriously disappears that Charley begins to investigate. And this Jerry behaves more like a serial killer, having constructed a hidden passageway in his house containing a series of small rooms that he can lock his victims in and feed on them at his leisure. Ed's transformation and climactic confrontation with Charley is an improvement, and there's a gag involving a Century 21 "For Sale" sign (Charley's mom is a realtor) that's a gas.

As I mentioned earlier, the film is much darker, both figuratively and literally. Of course, the 3D format reduces the brightness, but even so this Fright Night has very few daytime scenes, and it actually worked for me, creating a kind of nightmare world where the night never ends. Few glimpses of the gaudy Vegas strip are seen. Most of the action takes place in Charley's awful, semi-abandoned neighborhood and the dark outskirts of town. The darkness also serves to punctuate the 3D: there are some nice geysers of blood and bits of burning ember floating out of the picture.

As far as the effects go, I preferred the KNB EFX Group's old-fashioned makeup used early on in the film, but when the vampire transformations become more extreme, the filmmakers resort to CGI, which just isn't as...well, I can't say realistic. How about organic? Sadly, one of those CGI effects is the reveal of Amy's vagina dentata face, which isn't nearly as fun as the original's.

Screenwriter Marti Noxon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") made mostly good choices in updating the plot and characters while giving some affectionate nods to the original, and director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) does a fine job providing many sequences of dread during which you find yourself scanning the dark perimeters of the screen, anxiously awaiting a 3D horror to come flying out at you.

Will it stand the test of time as well as Tom Holland's original did? Probably not. The 1985 version will always be fondly remembered (and revisited) by the first home video generation, and it's got an old-fashioned charm that welcomes repeat viewing more than the remake. Still, I recommend seeing this one in 3D for a fun, fang-filled evening.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Back in May I did an overview of the summer's genre films and I speculated—speculated, mind you, not predicted—that Super 8 might be the big winner. Boy was I wrong. Not only did the film underperform, it pretty much stunk.

Also in that post, while I was carrying on about Super 8, I devoted a quick paragraph to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and I'm the first to admit I was completely wrong about my predictions, saying it would have a soft opening and would be kind of...meh. It opened big—over $54 million last weekend—and critical reviews were pretty solid. My curiosity was piqued, so I saw it this morning. Here's my review:

James Franco stars as Will Rodman, a genetics engineer working at one of those gigantic, glass-and-metal drug conglomerates. He's created ALZ 112, a virus-based drug that he hopes will treat Alzheimer's disease by allowing the brain to regenerate itself. Testing on chimpanzees reveals an interesting side-effect: they've become considerably more intelligent and (unnoticed by humans) considerably more self-aware.

During a meeting with investors, his star subject, Bright Eyes (a nod to Charlton Heston's character's nickname in the original), goes berserk when they try to take her out of her cage, and Will's employer, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), orders all of the test chimps to be destroyed. However, his assistant, Robert (Tyler Labine) discovers the source of Bright Eyes' rage: she'd been protecting her newborn infant that she'd been hiding from the scientists.

Will takes the male chimp to the home he shares with his Alzheimer's afflicted father, Charles (John Lithgow). When Will discovers that the young ape, which they name Caesar, has inherited the positive effects of ALZ 112 in utero from his mother, he decides to administer the drug to Charles.

The change is miraculous. Not only does his father recover, he improves. Unfortunately, the effects don't last long (Charles' own immune system is actually destroying the drug), and Will finds himself back at the lab, asking Jacobs for the resources to develop a new, stronger formula. With dollar signs in his eyes, his boss agrees, giving him carte blanche. Will creates ALZ 113 (of course), which proves disastrous for human and ape alike.

This sounds like a pretty good setup, doesn't it? And indeed it is. Rise is truly one of the big surprises of this summer. Surprisingly self-assured, it unapologetically demands that the viewer go along with some of its more absurd plot twists, but it trusts that said viewer will become so invested in the story that he or she will accept them. I certainly did.

The film touches on hot-button themes like animal activism and corporate greed, but it doesn't get bogged down in them.

What makes it so effective is the level of emotion that is persuasively conveyed throughout. Among the humans, the wonderful John Lithgow delivers a poignant performance as Charles, whose cognizance is restored and then taken away from him again. Frieda Pinto (from Slumdog Millionaire) is attractive as a zoo veterinarian who gets involved with Will and his brood. Labine is also a standout as Robert, whose devotion to the apes results in tragedy.

But the real emotional content is provided by the apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis, well-known as Gollum in the LOTR trilogy). He should get a special Oscar nomination for CGI mo-cap. And who played the orangutan? That's another winning performance!

Now about Franco. Many critics really loathe his acting in the film, but I think a lot of them despise him—period—after all of his hijinks. Frankly, if the film's emotional level varies from one to ten, he probably measures a consistent five, but he's not awful. Worse is Oyelow as Jacobs, a two-dimensional "nyah ha ha" mustache-twirling corporate villain. And David Hewlett, as Will's perpetually pissed-off neighbor, reminded me of Michael McKean in The Brady Bunch Movie.

Peter Jackson's sfx company WETA Digital created the apes, and they do a fine job. Never for a moment do you forget that you're watching CGI, but the story is so compelling that you don't care. That was the same thing that happened during LOTR. And their efforts are in the service of a far better film than Peter Jackson's bloated, overlong King Kong remake from 2005 (with Serkis as Kong). Director Rupert Wyatt wisely chooses to play up the emotional content rather than turning it into an idiotic slam-slam-crasher like Transformers...or Super 8! The action scenes, while well-staged, are more restrained than usual and therefore more effective.

The final conflagration, on the Golden Gate Bridge, is exciting, but some of the less extreme scenes are even more memorable: residents of a tree-lined suburban street are startled when thousands of green leaves fall to the ground, only to look up and see Caesar and his ape army leaping through the branches; Caesar's unbridled joy when Will takes him to the coastal redwoods for the first time; and the aforementioned orangutan communicating with Caesar in sign language. And, as another reviewer wrote, "It's an end of the world movie that makes us forget it's an end of the world movie."

With the film's clever coda, Fox has set up another Apes franchise. Let's hope they took a lesson from the original series and don't go cheap and silly. The studio did a good job rescuing X-Men this year, so I'm optimistic. Let's see what kind of legs it has this coming weekend. The main competitors are the new 3D films Final Destination and Glee (barf), but the former is rated R and the latter is a concert film. And I don't think a whole lot people are going to shell out 3D admission prices for something they can see for free at home.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Mondo Kings

The Mondo film (literally World film) genre refers to documentary-style movies that chronicle the more extreme side of human existence. Among the most well-known is the notoriously sleazy Faces of Death series, but Mondo movies have been in existence since the silent era. Even the 1933 classic King Kong has Mondo aspects as its co-director, Ernest B. Schoedsack, based the jungle native sequences on his real-life experiences as a documentary filmmaker.

The genre was especially popular in the United States before the MPAA ratings system was established. Individual censorship boards regulated film content in those days, and filmmakers found themselves chopping up prints in varying degrees on a state-by-state basis. Since Mondo films were considered "educational," they were often passed uncut, giving adventurous audiences the nudity and violence they craved. And they were titillated by the most bizarre things. Real baby births! Animals fighting! Actual queers kissing (okay, that's a John Waters reference)! Frankly, that doesn't sound any different than today's reality television.

In 1962, the filmmakers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco E. Prosperi gave the Mondo genre its name and created an international sensation with Mondo Cane (A Dog's Life), arguably the most famous entries in the genre. It exposed Western audiences to bizarre customs around the world and was a huge hit. Riz Ortolani's theme song, "More," even became an easy listening standard and was nominated for an Oscar!

Relatively tame by the standards of the films that would follow, it nevertheless followed the constructs of the later, more shocking Mondos: human debasement, animal cruelty and sexual aberration. It also featured reconstructed scenes, passed off as authentic, that would become a cornerstone for movies like the Faces series. The narration in the English language version is clinical and pedantic, sometimes mocking its subjects as primitive savages or degenerates. But the authentic scenes of animal cruelty have not lost their power to shock.



Realizing they'd caught the good ol' gravy train, Prosperi and Jacopetti offered up a sequel the very next year (released in the U.S. in 1965), but it was more clumsily composed, focused more on "freaks" (gays and transvestites) and featured much more recreated footage. Nevertheless, it proved to be a moneymaker as well. That same year, they also made Women of the World, a self-explanatory title and an excuse to pump up the raincoat crowd with acres of female flesh and debauchery.

Opportunistic filmmakers frantically followed suit with grotesque imitations, so by 1966 the team made their bid for respectability with Africa Addio (aka Africa Blood and Guts), which was a violent, harrowing examination the end of colonial rule in Africa and the bloody battle for control of the continent that followed. Originally begun as another Mondo movie, it took a political turn when the revolution erupted.

Evidently Prosperi and Jacopetti were the only filmmakers who risked their lives to venture into the battle to chronicle the mayhem, and the film they delivered, filled with actual scenes of extreme violence (a pile of dismembered human hands sticks in the memory), proved too horrible for moviegoers of the day to stomach. Additionally, critics (including Roger Ebert) accused the filmmakers of racism in their depiction of blacks. Jacopetti was even tried for murder in Italy, accused of having staged an execution for the camera, but he was acquitted.

It reappeared in drive-ins and grindhouses three years later as Africa, Blood and Guts, an idiotic re-edit that removed nearly an hour of footage, but I was able to get the original version, released by Blue Underground on DVD—and it's really difficult to watch.

The filmmakers let five years pass before releasing Farewell Uncle Tom (aka Goodbye Uncle Tom), a pseudo-documentary about American slavery cross-cut with footage of contemporary Black leaders fighting for civil rights. It's meant to be an angry retort to the critics who thought Africa Addio was racist, and it's an extremely bizarre effort. Imagine Paramount's disaster Mandingo taken to an even more extreme level and you're about half-way there.

Most of the footage was shot in Haiti with the cooperation of Papa Doc Duvalier and the Tontons Macoutes, so there's another huge grain of salt you must take while watching the film. Even today, it polarizes viewers, with some claiming that it's so anti-racist that it's racist, and others proclaiming it to be a humanitarian masterpiece. Of course, Roger Ebert—who really hated these guys—despised it.

In 1975 the filmmakers offered up another fictional work, Mondo Candido, based on Voltaire's "Candide." The only thing Mondo about it is its title. I haven't seen it, but Shock Cinema says "It's like Ken Russell's The Devils meets Laugh-In." Sounds weird to me, and I've seen a Dušan Makavejev movie! For better or worse, Mondo Candido marked the end of their collaboration.

Both Prosperi and Jacopetti are still with us, and they participated in an excellent documentary about their career, The Godfathers of Mondo, that came with my set of DVDs. They're proud of their career and are still openly defiant when the subject of their critics comes up.

Hey, if I helped to invent a genre, I'd be pretty damn defiant, too!

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